After city layoffs, rats abound in Queens

Rats now thrive in rubbish piles throughout Jackson Heights, Queens, after job cuts in May that slashed 75 percent of the city's exterminator workforce. Photo by Chelsia Marcius

Pulling out an old badge with the word “exterminator” printed in big, bold capital letters, Maribel Oliveras said she cleared city roads of rat-infested rubbish for more than 15 years.

After a sweep of pest-control layoffs in May, Oliveras, 45, of the Bronx, was out of a job.

But she said the cuts affected more than just city workers. Now, there are even more fat, beady-eyed rodents in New York City neighborhoods.

City Council members, state representatives and DC 37 union leaders of locals 768 and 1549  held a press conference yesterday in Jackson Heights, Queens, calling upon City Hall to rehire workers, clean up the streets and drive out the vermin.

Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) says the increase in rats is due to job cuts in May, when city officials slashed 75 percent of pest-control positions across all five boroughs.

The layoffs, carried out by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, left just eight exterminators to cover all of Queens.

“I smell a rat,” state Sen. José Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) said. “The city had the opportunity to do the right thing, but instead they chose not to get rid of the rats, but to get rid of the workers.”

Zoe Tobin, a DHMH spokesman, said the department has taken newer, more effective measures to resolve the problem, including funding efforts to stamp out pests in city parks and launching the Bronx Rat Indexing Pilot Project.

But local 768 President Fitz Reid, who represents health service employees, said such interactive, online methods are no match for people.

“You need a human being to identify the problem, to determine the appropriate solution for the area, and then to go out and clean up the garbage,” Reid said.

While Tobin said the department provides extermination services to home and small-business owners, Reid pointed out that property owners — not the city — pick up the tab.

Yet Kathryn Daniels, 55, a Jackson Heights resident for more than 20 years, considers the issue neither here nor there. Like some, she has not seen rats roaming the neighborhood.

“If there was a problem around me, I’d think people in my building would be talking,” she said. “Maybe it’s just that people don’t know.”

Local 768 treasurer Caroline Hilton, an exterminator for 26 years, said most residents are not as fortunate.

“We get hundreds of calls each day through 311, but we can only help a few,” Hilton said, referencing the city’s number for non-emergency services. “It’s not a good feeling when you have to put people off. With so few of us, we can no longer compete with the garbage.”