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Fill-in workers who kept subways clean in pandemic hoping to get picked up

A mostly Latin immigrant workforce stepped up when COVID-19 threw the MTA for a loop and required more cleaning with less staff. As their time runs out, many are looking for more permanent, union work with the transit agency.

September 12, 2022 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY.

Since the height of the pandemic, jobs cleaning the subway offered some New Yorkers a way to collect a paycheck as other avenues closed.

But for many of the mostly immigrant workers who have supplemented MTA station and car equipment cleaners since the spring of 2020, the end of the line is drawing near.

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“That’s what they tell us,” an Ecuadorian cleaner who asked not to be identified by name told THE CITY in Spanish while waiting for a No. 1 train at South Ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan. “Like with everything else, there is an end — what can you do?”

MTA officials said the transit agency’s latest budget plan includes an increase of 845 car equipment and station cleaner positions through early 2024 as it prepares to transfer COVID cleaning duties to in-house employees and eventually phase out the contracted cleaners.

An MTA spokesperson said the agency paid close to $100 million to third-party contractors in 2021 to back up a workforce hit hard by absences, deaths and retirements stemming from COVID-19.

Desperate times

A car that had to be taken out of service at the F line’s Jamaica-179th Street terminal in June.
Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

The contract cleaners were hired for jobs that, under normal circumstances, are performed by union workers.

“It was an emergency situation,” Matt Ahern, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 official, told THE CITY. “Between people that had COVID, people who were out because of close contact and people not coming to work, it was crazy.

“And anybody that could walk out the door and retire did.”

In 2020, agency records show, the MTA spent more than $124 million on contractors who hired workers to clean and disinfect trains at terminals and another $68 million for workers to disinfect touch points in stations.

Transit leaders have repeatedly said they expect that money to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Calls from THE CITY to several MTA cleaning contractors were not returned.

Both MTA and TWU Local 100 officials said contract cleaners have been encouraged to apply for in-house jobs as transit cleaners.

“Another large class started [last month] and they’re preparing for everything to get transitioned back,” Ahern said. “The contractors will be gone by the end of the year — at this point, it’s a matter of getting the new hires in quickly enough.”

The push to hire more cleaners comes as the number of cars soiled by urine, waste and other fluids is rising back to pre-pandemic levels — even though weekday ridership only hovers around 60% of what it was.

There were nearly 1,900 “soiled car” incidents through the end of August, according to MTA figures. In contrast, there were 1,504 such incidents in all of 2017 and 2,058 in 2018, as THE CITY reported in 2019.

“Who’s going to get on a subway car that’s filthy?” Ahern said. “Cleaning is paramount in bringing ridership back.”

A contract cleaner works as riders leave an E train at World Trade Center. Sept. 2, 2022.
Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

‘I’ve seen a lot down here’

Several cleaners at Manhattan subway terminals said they are hoping to stick around as full-time employees.

“The MTA should take us into consideration, because we’ve got experience at doing a delicate job,” a female cleaner who asked not to be identified told THE CITY in Spanish.

She said she took the contractor job in the early days of the pandemic and has since been posted at a pair of terminals in Manhattan.

“I’ve seen a lot down here,” she said. “But the worst thing I have seen is people who have gone to the bathroom on themselves.”

Starting pay for the MTA cleaner jobs is $19.03 per hour, according to a July job post, and increases to $31.71 hourly after six years of service.

The Ecuadorian cleaner, who is in his 60s, said he has applied for one of the jobs in hopes that he can stick around full time. He said he currently earns “about $21 an hour” doing similar work in the system through a contractor.

“At least here, I have been able to keep working,” he told THE CITY.  “Now, I’ve got experience and I know what I’m doing when it comes to disinfecting the train.”

‘Overwhelming response’

According to the MTA, the agency’s budget through early 2024 restores some cuts from prior years, along with increasing staffing.

“The MTA undertook the unprecedented effort of disinfecting subway cars and stations daily throughout the height of the pandemic to keep employees and riders safe,” said spokesperson Kayla Shults. “The authority is using the lessons learned in ensuring we use best practices in our ongoing cleaning efforts.”

Ahern said the initial response to the recent cleaner job postings was “overwhelming,” with more than 45,000 applicants putting in to refill an in-house pool of workers that was depleted during the pandemic.

The in-house positions, he said, are now “being filled as fast as possible.” He added that contract cleaners who apply may have a better chance of being called back, though they legally cannot receive hiring priority.

“It’s key to keep the operation running smoothly,” Ahern said. “We have everybody back to work.”

THE CITY is a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.


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