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What the ‘Invisible’ People Cleaning the Subway Want Riders to Know

When the pandemic hit last spring in New York City, it became even more challenging. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered that trains be shut down overnight for cleaning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority turned to contractors to help undertake the monumental task of scouring the trains in the nation’s largest transit system.

March 26, 2021 / 10:39 PM IST
Subway riders wearing protective face masks exit the shuttle train during the coronavirus pandemic at the Times Square stop in New York City, US on March 11, 2021. (PC-REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Subway riders wearing protective face masks exit the shuttle train during the coronavirus pandemic at the Times Square stop in New York City, US on March 11, 2021. (PC-REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Yaneth Ochoa, a Colombian woman who lives in Queens, was glad to find a job cleaning the subway last summer, as demolition jobs had dried up during the pandemic.

But as trains rolled into the Jamaica-179 Street Station in Queens, she learned she would not just be wiping down cars to remove traces of the coronavirus. Like workers at end-of-line stations all over New York City, Ochoa, 30, was expected to scrub away grime, sputum and even human excrement, she said, without adequate training or special equipment.

Instead, the cleaning crews were given a few rags, a bucket of cleaning solution and, according to several workers, a simple set of instructions: “Clean it like it’s your house.”

1st COVID-19 death in New York City: Emotional tribute on Brooklyn Bridge to mark anniversary

Cleaning the New York City subway has always been a dirty job. But when the pandemic hit last spring, it became even more challenging. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered that trains be shut down overnight for cleaning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority turned to contractors to help undertake the monumental task of scouring the trains in the nation’s largest transit system.

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The thousands of workers the contractors hired — largely low-income immigrants from Latin America — were envisioned as a stopgap measure, as MTA workers were falling ill and dying of the virus. At the same time, ridership and revenue had plummeted and the agency found itself in an intense budget crunch.

But nearly a year later, the workers are still toiling at stations all over the city, some paid as little as half as much as the MTA employees who did the same work before the pandemic began, and many without access to health insurance.

Now, as the MTA prepares to welcome more riders, the workers are pushing back, raising concerns about their safety, salaries and working conditions that they say feel like exploitation.

Their complaints illustrate the challenges of keeping the sprawling subway system cleaner than ever because of public health concerns during the pandemic. They also appear to show how the MTA’s contractors have relied on a labor force that has been desperate for work at a time when hundreds of thousands have lost jobs in cleaning, construction and restaurants.

Ochoa, who earned around $15 per hour, New York state’s minimum wage, finally quit after refusing to clean a train smeared with excrement with just a few rags, she said. By then, she said, she had worked for nearly three months without a place to eat lunch or access to the station bathroom.

“It’s so scary to be left without work right now that you’ll accept almost anything,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the MTA, Abbey Collins, said the agency was disinfecting the subway with the help of “licensed and reputable outside companies whose performance is monitored regularly.” The cleaning program, which the MTA plans to continue indefinitely, will cost about $300 million this year. The authority said it plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Transit officials said all workers had access to station bathrooms, but not break rooms, because of capacity issues related to social distancing. Contractors are required to supply proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, and cleaning materials to their employees, officials said.

They said the MTA had hired an outside firm to conduct daily inspections of contractors working at end-of-line stations. It had investigated workers’ allegations and had not found any violations since June, when it addressed issues related to PPE.

Leaders of the Transit Workers Union, however, said they were alarmed by workers’ accounts. They would prefer that transit workers, who have been cleaning stations throughout the pandemic, also resume cleaning train cars, they said, but as long as contract workers are on the job, they should have similar protections to those given to the agency’s employees.

“If you’ve got workers on the property for a year, it’s a matter of basic equality,” said Zachary Arcidiacono, chair of the Train Operators Division for the union.

The New York Times interviewed a dozen contract cleaners, including three who in late February had met with Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and chief executive of the MTA, to describe their job and share a list of “needs” with transit agency leadership.

Their accounts paint a picture of dismal working conditions and highlight their unequal treatment compared with transit cleaners, who are paid up to $30 an hour and enjoy health insurance and other benefits, uniforms and MetroCards to swipe themselves into the system.

Unlike transit workers, the contract workers are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, though they say their work routinely exposes them to unmasked passengers and dangerous waste. They are seeking better working conditions and a path to MTA jobs.

Beatriz Muñoz, 38, cleaned trains for six months last year at the terminus of the Q line at 96th Street in Manhattan. When cars arrived that were closed to passengers because they had been sullied, “we were the ones who had to go in there,” she said. “We would be praying to God that we wouldn’t get sick.”

A worker named Juan described chasing down purse-snatchers and running to help co-workers threatened by homeless people who had commandeered their brooms and mops.

“And we’re invisible,” he said.

The Times is using only his first name because he is still employed as a cleaner and fears retribution.

Transit officials said they had called on City Hall to send more police officers and mental health workers into the subway to ensure that all workers and passengers were safe.

LN Pro Services, the contractor that employed Ochoa in Queens, disputed several workers’ claims. Lily Sierra, the CEO of the company, said workers never lacked access to bathrooms and managers were on hand to fetch missing cleaning materials and protective supplies. She said new hires were paid an hourly wage of $18 an hour; later, employees made more.

(Author: Annie Correal)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)
New York Times

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