Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of Unitarian Universalist Church, left, assembles a group of striking sanitation workers who were picketing Potomac Disposal in Gaithersburg, Md., on Oct. 28. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

Summers are the toughest, when the trash is full of rotting meat and diapers and the stench is bad enough to knock you back on your heels.

Then there’s the grinding pace, Maryland trash hauler Jacob Alvial said, hopping on and off the truck until your knees throb, hauling containers often much heavier than the 45-pound limit. Alvial hustles to finish a route that takes him to between 800 and 1,000 homes a day and through some of the region’s wealthiest Zip codes, in Potomac and Bethesda.

When he’s done, and headed to the transfer station in Shady Grove, there’s usually more than 4.5 tons of trash in his truck.

“People make a lot of trash in one week,” said Alvial, 24, a native of Venezuela who lives in Gaithersburg.

The hauler’s life in Montgomery County is arduous and grimy, occasionally hazardous and largely invisible. That changed for a couple of weeks last month when about 100 workers at two companies went on strike — one group for better pay and affordable health care, the other to compel employers to recognize their union. Neither was completely successful before returning to work Oct. 30.

The walkouts attracted the attention of political and religious leaders because the two companies involved, Potomac Disposal and Unity Disposal and Recycling, hold multimillion-dollar annual contracts with Montgomery to collect trash, recyclables, yard trimmings and scrap metal. (Some municipalities and homeowner associations in the county have their own contracts with hauling companies.)

The strikes offered a glimpse of life on the economic margins in a county long known as a wealthy and progressive suburban enclave with well-regarded public schools and a median household income of $95,000.

The haulers represent another Montgomery — emerging but still obscured by the prevailing image — a scuffling majority-minority county that is increasingly diverse and poor.

Officials with the two hauling companies — including Potomac Disposal’s president, Lee Levine, and vice president, Rick Levine, and Unity Disposal’s chief executive, Cordell Proctor, and chief operating officer, Jerald Boyd — did not respond to phone messages and e-mails asking for comment on the issues raised by workers in this article. In an Oct. 30 letter to Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) announcing the strike settlement, Potomac attorney Meredith Campbell said: “Potomac Disposal values its employees and at all times has sought to treat them fairly.”

A long, hard day

“It doesn’t bother me to work hard,” said Rosa Avalos, 44, who drives for Unity. The divorced mother of two teenagers said she makes a flat rate of $130 a day (about $31,000 a year), which does or doesn’t comply with Montgomery’s required $13.95-an-hour “living wage” for county contractors, depending on the length of her shift.

The day begins about 6 a.m. in the lot at Unity’s Laurel offices, and it can stretch to 10 or 12 hours when she is asked to complete other routes after finishing hers. Workweeks can exceed 40 hours, she said, with no overtime and no advance notice from the company, which will be paid $7.2 million this year under its county contract, according to records.

Avalos, who cleans houses on weekends, said the uncertainty puts her in a bind in the evening, when she tries to get back to her $1,100-a-month Silver Spring apartment to see her children and cook for them.

“The hard thing is when you finish your route and they send you back out to do extra,” she said.

The county is conducting an audit of Unity and Potomac pay records to determine whether they are in compliance with wage regulations.

Because they receive a flat daily rate, workers said collections can run at a frantic pace as they rush to complete routes by early afternoon — in order to begin evening jobs. That means resorting to time-saving measures such as jumping from and hopping onto moving trucks and hauling overweight bags.

“We’re breaking every OSHA rule out there,” said Yovany Ramos, 23, a Potomac driver.

Workers agree that the toughest jobs belong to the “helpers,” the non-driving workers assigned to each truck.

“They do the hard work in the back of the truck,” said Franco Tereso, a Unity driver. “No rest, no nothing.”

Lloyd Joiner, 43, makes $95 a day at Unity, about $23,000 a year, working without a rest break or a lunch break, he said, usually moving at a jog behind the truck, collecting yard trim in Gaithersburg and Germantown.

“It’s a lot of wear and tear on my back and on my knees,” said Joiner, originally from South Carolina. “I’m not no young puppy anymore.”

The company deducts $7 a day for washing uniforms.

Joiner said that before the walkout, complaints were met by a standard response from supervisors: “If you don’t like this job, give in your uniform and go home.”

He said the company also makes a practice of intimidating workers without immigration papers. Joiner estimated that between a quarter and a third of Unity employees are undocumented. The charge of intimidation is included in an unfair-labor-practice complaint filed last month with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of Unity workers by the Laborers International Union of North America.

At Potomac, the strike was preceded by a brief September walkout, workers said, following the company’s distribution of I-9 forms, required by the federal government to verify the identity of all U.S. workers. Potomac employees said that they hadn’t been presented with the forms before and that the company was attempting to gain leverage in contract talks. Potomac officials said they were merely trying to comply with the law.

A dangerous job

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the collection of refuse and recyclable material as one of the country’s most dangerous jobs, right behind those of loggers, fishers, airline pilots, roofers, and iron and steel workers. Sanitation workers elsewhere have been crushed by the hydraulic blades in the rear of the trucks, killed by passing vehicles and exposed to toxic materials.

Among contract haulers in Montgomery, there have been no known fatalities but plenty of injuries. Blanca Portillo, a Potomac driver who lives in Poolesville, tore a knee ligament when she lost her grip on a heavy container in Bethesda. Victor Chavez, another Potomac driver, suffered a deep facial cut from glass fragments when a bottle burst. Others report back and abdominal muscle strains. Workers are at risk of coming in contact with human and animal feces, syringes and other medical waste, including substances that are radioactive.

Trucks are routinely swept for radioactivity at the Shady Grove transfer station, where the trash is processed. Officials said the occasional radioactivity is very low-level, disperses quickly and does not place workers at risk.

Many haulers don’t buy health insurance offered by the companies because it is too costly. Avalos said the Unity plan would cost $80 a week just for her. Potomac’s family plan is $260 a month for a family of four. More affordable insurance was a key demand of the striking Potomac workers, but they were unable to negotiate it — in part, union officials said, because it would have required the county to increase the value of its contract with Potomac.

Navarro, the County Council president, said she has asked attorneys to draft a bill that would require contractors to provide reasonably priced insurance to employees working more than 30 hours a week.

Potomac workers said the idea of unionizing had been simmering since September 2012, when they were summoned to a meeting before the start of their shift. According to accounts from three workers, a company official announced that a supervisor’s car had been keyed and that if no one stepped forward to accept responsibility, they would all be fined $120 — more than a day’s pay for many.

When no one admitted responsibility, the official left, saying, “Have a nice day at work.”

Angry at the threats, workers said, they refused to start the shift. When Potomac managers became aware of the incipient revolt, they backed away from the threatened $120 fine.

Alvial said the incident taught them an important lesson. “That’s when we realized together we had some say in the workplace,” he said. Soon after, the workers reached out to the Laborers union.

The three-year agreement includes pay increases of as much as $20 a day, three sick days and three vacation days for helpers (some drivers already got vacation days) and the first paid holiday for all workers: Christmas.

Workers at Unity are hoping for something similar. They have been attempting to organize, but they say the company has gone out of its way to intimidate them, firing (and subsequently rehiring) a worker who spoke out at a meeting.

Joiner, the Unity helper, eventually wants to run his own business. But he’d like to leave better conditions behind for whoever replaces him.

“That’s my concern,” he said, “for the next guy coming in.”