Hazardous waste technician, Annelise Tuitavuki, known as “Tui” to her coworkers, whizzes through her workplace — dressed from head to toe in a gray hazmat suit. Her wrists and ankles sealed with silver duct tape, her eyes shielded with protective goggles.
Tuitavuki is responsible for safely disposing of waste that could harm human health or the environment. She works at the Metro South Hazardous Waste Facility in Oregon City. The station is a processing site for the region’s waste — sorting materials before sending them to landfills, recyclers and composting facilities.
“I honestly love everything about the job because there is always a learning opportunity,” says Tuitavuki. “I didn’t realize how toxic some chemicals are — like bleach. I didn’t know if you mix bleach and ammonia it creates a toxic [gas]. I used to be one of those people pouring bleach in the drain to clean the sink.”
Tuitavuki prepared for her career through the Oregon Tradeswomen Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class — a free seven week pre-apprenticeship training class that helps women prepare for high-skill careers with family sustaining wages and benefits.
After working at Metro South for two years as a temporary employee Tuitavuki was hired permanently in December 2019. Tuitavuki is the first woman permanently employed at Metro South from a partnership between Metro and Oregon Tradeswomen.
“Our mission, as an organization, is economic empowerment through leadership training and mentorship,” says Jay Richmond, Oregon Tradeswomen workforce equity manager. “We want to give women the skills so they can lift themselves out of poverty. If you are talking about deep equity and ensuring everyone deserves a living wage, that is what the trades provide — public agencies have a huge part in pushing for that to happen.”
The partnership was launched in March 2017 with the aim to advance equity in the region’s garbage and recycling system by offering skill-building support and apprenticeship opportunities for women and communities of color. Historically, this workforce has been disproportionately comprised of men.
“As part of our diversity, equity and inclusion effort we reached out to community-based organizations to partner with them to develop pathways for folks...in solid waste operations,” says Penny Erickson, Metro South site superintendent.
As part of this partnership, Oregon Tradeswomen provides Metro with assistance to increase the number of women working in garbage and recycling. This included raising base wages from $13 to $18 per hour and providing career counseling to program graduates. They are also working to shorten the commute to Metro South and Central for employees without cars who often spend over an hour on public transit to get to their jobs.
Oregon Tradeswomen also assists Metro with recruitment and outreach by identifying students who are interested in working at Metro.
New career is like CSI without the crime
After attending a career presentation on garbage and recycling operations, Tuitavuki jumped at the opportunity to tour Metro South’s hazardous waste facility.
What sold her? The lab where technicians identify the unknown hazardous waste they receive.
“When I’m in the lab, we get unknown bottles — and I go in there and test it,” explains Tuitavuki. “That excites me because that’s something I never did growing up. In high school I dropped out and got my GED so I didn’t get to experience that part of it.”
Tuitavuki starts her workday at six in the morning and ends at four-thirty in the afternoon. The Metro South hazardous waste facility gets about 100 customers a day at this time of year, and receives anything from batteries to flammable materials and pesticides.
“We start off with the morning meeting and then we do the bulking shift,” explains Tuitavuki.
The bulking shift involves combining the contents of containers of similar material into a large barrel. What gets bulked? Typically flammable liquids such as; tar, gasoline, adhesives, automotive paint and other wastes that are potential threats to public health or the environment.
During the bulking shift, the hazardous waste team — or hazcats, as they like to call themselves — work in teams of four. Three supporters open containers, remove trash and manage 55-gallon drums of hazardous waste. The fourth — nicknamed “the crusher” — remains in the bulking room, consolidating materials into drums and breathing supplied air like an undersea diver.
Many of these wastes will be shipped to sites to be burned as fuel, otherwise, they are treated or disposed of in facilities across the region, from Oregon and Washington to Utah, Idaho and Texas.
Program aims to create equity by expanding opportunities
The Portland region’s garbage and recycling system and related businesses generate $537 million annually and employs thousands. The partnership between Oregon Tradeswomen and Metro invests in people — women and communities of color — who have been often left out of these economic benefits.
“It’s about providing good stable jobs for folks,” explains Erickson. “It gives people the opportunity to actually build a skill [in] an industry that is pretty much everywhere. People have to deal with their garbage no matter where they are in the world.”
Tuitavuki never anticipated working as a hazardous waste technician before meeting fellow Oregon Tradeswomen students playing rugby.
“Everyone here I really enjoy being around,” says Tuitavuki. “They are kind of like role models to me because they’ve been here for a while and are more experienced. This is more of a family friendly workplace even though the things that come in here are not family friendly.”
Tuitavuki approaches each shift eager to learn, brainstorming ways to improve waste disposal. She and her fellow hazcats sneak Reese's Peanut Butter Cups from their five-gallon communal candy bucket in between greeting customers, working in the lab and making the region safer by protecting people from toxic wastes.