To hear former city sanitation worker Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler tell it, Geraldine Harris is the best of the best.
Known as “Coco,” Harris is a sanitation worker who does it all: She “throws”—i.e., tossing trash into the truck; she’s one of the best drivers, always knowing her route and how to maneuver through Philly’s crowded streets, never getting into scrapes; she’s a leader. And she’s always ready to help out.
“She’s funny, caring, always willing to teach,” Haigler says. “When I first got there, she taught me the ropes of the job, who to listen to, who talks shit all the time. She’s a sweetheart.”
In other words: Coco Harris is exactly the kind of city worker we’re looking for as part of our Integrity Icon 2021 contest—in partnership with D.C.-based Accountability Lab, Better Civics and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM)—to name and fame the best publicly-paid employees in the city of Philadelphia. This week, which we’ve designated Streets Week, we’re looking for nominations from the city’s Streets Department, which encompasses sanitation, roads, lighting, beautification and many other critical services to the way people go about their business in Philly. (See a full list here.)
Haigler, one of our high-integrity Integrity Icon judges, spent 14 months working a trash truck in Philly, much of it during the pandemic when he became famous for drawing attention to the plight of sanitation workers. He called on the City to provide more and better personal protective equipment—and then, when that failed, started a fundraising campaign to help workers pay for it themselves.
Haigler, named Billy Penn’s “2021 Most Valuable Philadelphian”, has since become a vocal, public advocate for clean streets, espousing both personal responsibility and government action to make Philly a city that picks up its trash. He’s also a partner in Glitter, an app that tackles the city’s trash problem by paying Philly residents a living wage to keep their streets clean.
Haigler has seen the good and the bad of city workers. Here’s what he looks for in finding people worthy of being celebrated:
Work ethic: Haigler has seen some lazy sanitation workers. He’s also seen others who are anything but. “They come in on time, are always prepared, do the job carefully and know their routes,” he says. “How they approach the job makes all the difference.”
How they treat each other: Attitude matters on the job, Haigler notes. “Some people have really great attitudes”—like Harris, he says. “Others do the job, but are mean to people. So many things annoy them. You’re hauling trash; doing the job is hard enough, you don’t have to add in a nasty attitude.”
How they interface with the public: When Haigler was on the job, he says, he had an older woman on his route; rather than dump her trash and put the cans back on the curb, he would put them on her porch to save her some effort. Lots of his colleagues did the same, or similar things—helping people grab extra trash, taking extra large items, whatever they needed to make sure streets were free of garbage when they turned the corner. “Some workers—their blocks love them,” Haigler says. “And some wish they had a new crew.”
How they communicate: Dispatchers are the invisible workers who keep the streets department running—and how they do that matters. From a worker’s perspective, Haigler praises those who know how to assign routes, which trucks work, and the best way to make the heavy work of hauling trash most efficient. From the public’s perspective, he points to those who answer the phone at call centers: Are they polite? Do they say yes more than they say no? Are they solving problems?
“She’s funny, caring, always willing to teach,” Haigler says of Coco Harris. “When I first got there, she taught me the ropes of the job. She’s a sweetheart.”
All of this—the attitude, the communication, the work ethic—is what, to Haigler, makes up high integrity in a city-funded job. Who do you know who embodies all these characteristics? We’d love to hear about them for our second Integrity Icon contest—which we launched last month. We’re accepting nominations here for anyone—except for elected officials—whose salary is paid by city taxes.
The criteria we’re looking for is simple, but powerful, as Haigler laid out: A high-integrity public service employee is respectful and caring; knows their work makes a difference to people’s lives; acts in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treats everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and goes above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.
Once we close nominations at the end of December, we’ll spend a few weeks vetting the candidates and narrowing the list down to eight or 10. In early January, five finalists will be selected by our panel of esteemed judges—Haigler; Michael O’ Bryan, founder of strategic design firm Humanature and a fellow at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation; Nilda Ruiz, executive director of APM; Jen Devor, co-founder of Better Civics; and Amy Kurland, former Inspector General of the City of Philadelphia. Then, we’ll film short video bios of each finalist, and again ask for your help in selecting the People’s Choice Icon.
Their prize? Glory. That’s it—because that’s all that integrity calls for.
Terrill Haigler, aka @yafavtrashman