NYDS Workers Fight Grooming Guides and Win

NEW YORK'S DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION (NYDS) is letting its hair down — literally. Although they are charged with collecting countless dirty bags of trash from the nation's largest city, NYDS workers were asked to clean up their acts last November, as part of the city's “personal appearance standards” for all uniformed personnel. But after protests quickly arose from the ranks, the department has relaxed the policy.

The grooming guidelines, the department stated, are designed to enhance worker safety and improve the department's collective image. As initially written, the standards required hair and facial hair to be neatly trimmed; shoes shined; nails clipped so that they are no more than one-half inch from the fingertip; and jewelry worn only at a minimum. For both men and women, only stud earrings were allowed; dangling earrings and hoops were prohibited.

If workers did not comply with the grooming code, they would be sent home without pay. Not long after the guidelines were announced, for example, two workers, Joseph Flagiello and Ralph Spaulding, were sent home for not removing their hoop earrings.

But Flagiello says he wears his hoop in honor of his deceased brother, who wore the match to his grave. And bearded or long-haired workers began defending their appearances based on culture and religion.

Collection workers perceived the guidelines as excessive. “We believe one of the bosses downtown saw some of our people who went to the extreme, which might have meant multiple earrings,” says Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, New York. “Somebody was bored, and they put out these standards without even asking us. All we saw, with our first look at the guidelines, was a foreman running around with a ruler measuring fingernails and hair. We're not used to that in this department.”

The new guidelines also were issued at a time when trash collectors were handling more garbage than ever. Last July, the city suspended part of its recycling program, sending plastic and glass back into the trash can. Nespoli points out that most sanitation workers wear gloves throughout their shifts, making the fingernail rule unnecessary.

Based on the disagreements about the guidelines, the association and the department decided to negotiate some of the sticking points. The fingernail guideline now has been dropped, for instance, and small, tight hoop earrings will be allowed. Members of religious and cultural groups are exempt from the hair-length guidelines as well.

The city says that the revised guidelines have been implemented well. “Our uniformed forces now look much more uniform,” says Commissioner John Doherty.

Perhaps more important, Nespoli says, is that grooming decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis in the future.

“As long as we can sit down and talk about it, there's nothing we can't resolve in this department,” Nespoli says. “We have a job to do, and that is to service the city of New York.”