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Trash collectors: Overlooked but essential during the coronavirus pandemic

3News rides along with Lakewood’s refuse crew

CLEVELAND — It’s easy to forget the people behind the scenes who make our lives easier during a crisis.

The people who pick up trash are often overlooked. They are not first responders, but they are on frontline and just as critical.

3News rode along with the men and woman of Lakewood’s Refuse and Recycling Division on a recent early morning to see how their jobs have changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Glen Bleich, manager of Refuse and Recycling Division, started a crew meeting at 6 a.m., as he does most days.

"Thank you guys for communicating with each other,” he said. “It's been a stressful week. Thanks for your hard work. I appreciate it. The mayor appreciates it."

Refuse worker Jill Haley said still enjoys her job.  

"I love engaging with the residents,” she said. “The kids, in the summer, it's like you are the Pied Piper. They follow you because they love the trucks."

Laughing, she said the crew has become “neurotic” about staying protected, but everyone has adjusted.

“I feel good about it,” she said. “I'm just concerned about taking it home to my husband. The first couple of weeks we were very anxious. I think everyone in the world is anxious. It took us a week and half for all of us to figure out the new normal. I now like to leave the house and go to work."

Roman Ducu, Lakewood’s public works director, says the crews have not missed a step.

"They come in and have a sense of pride,” he said. “As you can see, they are dressed for war in these crazy times we are in."

Unlike many other communities, Lakewood is still collecting bulk items, though the city encourages residents to use its drop off centers to ease the burden on crews.

"I think people have a little more time on their hands so they are starting projects and throwing things away that they've been wanting to get rid of,” one crew member said, stopping at the back of the truck to talk to 3News. “So, it's been a little busier. "

Even with the extra work, they remain focused on their role amid the pandemic, never discouraged by those who don't notice. Neil Nelan, a group leader with the division of refuse and recycling, said their mission hasn't changed.

"We take a lot of pride in serving the citizens of Lakewood,” he said. “And we may not be in the hospitals – they are the real heroes – but we do have a part to play and everyone needs to pitch in, especially in time like this."

Check back for our special web-only coverage of Lakewood's trash collectors.

Click here for our coronavirus section.

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