Footage shows solid waste employees without masks, violating city’s own COVID-19 directives

Workers ‘jammed like sardines’ into city vehicles, employee says

City staff members violating COVID-19 protocols in public facing positions.

SAN ANTONIO – City of San Antonio solid waste employees were repeatedly captured on camera interacting with one another and the public while not wearing masks.

The footage, recorded by the KSAT 12 Defenders on multiple days last month, shows employees violating the city’s return-to-work protocols as well as the Mayor’s public health emergency declaration.

Solid Waste Management Department officials, who declined requests to be interviewed for this story, acknowledged that more than 50 employees from the department have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of April.

‘Jammed like sardines’ into city vans

A SWMD employee, who requested anonymity for fear of being targeted by management, said workers handing out trash collection flyers door-to-door are forced to ride in city vans with as many as 10 people in them, comparing the situation to being “jammed like sardines.”

Although city return to work rules now require employees to wear masks while riding in vehicles with one another, the employee claims the rule is routinely violated.

Sept. 10, as SWMD employees finished their lunch break on the Southeast Side, a KSAT 12 undercover camera captured footage of an employee walk out of a restaurant without a mask and then enter a van filled with rows of other employees without first covering her face.

A Solid Waste Management Department enters a city van Sept. 10 while not using a face covering. (KSAT)

Less than an hour later, as the same employees handed out flyers in a neighborhood near Roland Road and S. W.W. White Road, KSAT 12 cameras repeatedly recorded video of pairs of workers walking side-by-side while one of them did not have a face covering.

City employees are currently required to maintain social distancing of at least six feet whenever possible and if they cannot, they have been instructed to wear a mask.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg (center) delivers the daily COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 10. (KSAT)

The violations came the same day Mayor Ron Nirenberg announced nine new COVID-19 deaths in the area, a figure that included deaths from as far back as Sept. 1, and a rolling-average of 149 new coronavirus cases per day.

Days later, as SWMD employees handed out flyers in neighborhoods near Judson Road and Stahl Road, undercover cameras again captured footage of them violating COVID-19 protocols.

A Solid Waste Management Department employee talks with people in a truck Sept. 15. (KSAT)

One employee, who did not appear to have a face covering while placing flyers on front doors, at one point stopped to talk to a group of people riding in a truck.

The worker spoke with the group of people while the truck’s front window was rolled down and as he was close enough to the driver to place his hand on the vehicle’s side-mirror.

KSAT that same day also recorded footage of two other SWMD employees standing next to each other while neither wore a mask or face covering.

When the Defenders approached the driver of one of the vans, he said he was not allowed to answer questions and that he would call a supervisor to come speak with us.

Dillon Collier attempts to speak to a Solid Waste Management Department employee on Sept. 15. (KSAT)

After a supervisor failed to show up within a half-hour, the Defenders tracked down the van again. When asked by the Defenders if the driver had a contact number for his supervisor, he pulled away and left the neighborhood.

The interactions came the same day Nirenberg announced 115 new coronavirus cases and three new deaths in Bexar County.

Nirenberg’s declaration, which was updated as recently as Sept. 21, states that all people 10 years or older shall wear face coverings when they are within six feet of someone else.

A City of San Antonio return to work video instructs employees to maintain social distancing of at least six feet whenever possible, and to wear a mask if they cannot. (KSAT)

The directive includes employees who are in “close proximity” to co-workers.

City officials declined to make SWMD Director David Newman available for an interview for this story.

A department spokesperson stated via email they wanted to view the footage before committing to an on-camera interview.

After the Defenders declined the request, through a spokesperson Newman released the following statement:

“The City and the Solid Waste Management Department have directed employees to follow the face covering mandate, along with some additional requirements. We will address any instance of employees not following the face covering mandate or physical distancing guidelines while on duty and reinforce the importance of these policies with our staff. The Solid Waste Management Department is committed to the health and safety of its employees and the San Antonio community that we serve.”

The spokesperson said via email employees who do not follow the directives “will be addressed as appropriate by their immediate supervisor.”

The spokesperson also confirmed SWMD currently employs more than 40 city employees who were furloughed from other city departments.

From April 1 to mid-September, at least 52 SWMD employees have contracted COVID-19, according to figures provided by the spokesperson.

San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh on Monday sent the following statement acknowledging the infractions:

“We have addressed violations of our health and safety protocols with staff. Our community expects City staff to lead by example and so we have reinforced the mandatory face covering and physical distancing protocols. City staff provide critical services and we must protect our co-workers and the residents we serve.”

Pressed about why SWMD employees have continued to ride in crowded vans during the pandemic, a city spokesperson told KSAT via email:

“All City employees undergo symptom and temperature screening when they report to work. From their reporting site, they are transported in vans to their job sites. During transport, all employees are required to wear face coverings and are provided with proper sanitizing equipment, such as hand sanitizer and wipes.”

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.