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As Overnight Subway Service Returns, Union Slams Cleaning Staff Shortage

A subway car cleaner on the 3 train at the 148 Street station, May 3, 2021.
A subway car cleaner on the 3 train at the 148 Street station, May 3, 2021.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

With round-the-clock subway service set to return May 17, the union for transit workers says a shortage of car cleaners could leave the MTA exposed to an upcoming grime wave as ridership grows.

Contracts with private companies brought in by the MTA early in the pandemic to have thousands of low-wage workers disinfect subway trains expire July 1, leaving the agency to again rely solely on its on-staff cleaners.

But Transport Workers Union Local 100 says the MTA is already short-handed on employees who clean train cars. The shortage comes as a hiring freeze, retirements and COVID-19 have combined to shrink the subway workforce by nearly 9% from January 2019.

Figures from internal “personnel strength” reports obtained by THE CITY show that New York City Transit employed 878 car cleaners in February — 80 fewer than it did just over two years earlier. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the state of subway car cleanliness Monday while announcing the return of 24/7 service.

“You can smell it,” Cuomo declared nearly one year to the day after the suspension of overnight passenger service in the subway. “It smells cleaner, the cars look cleaner.”

That’s been with help of hourly laborers from private companies brought in to boost cleaning and disinfecting efforts while many in-house workers were out sick or quarantined. An MTA spokesperson said the agency has spent $335 million on COVID-related expenses, but could not provide a breakdown on car-cleaning costs.

A top official with TWU Local 100 told THE CITY the MTA has not filled a shortfall within the ranks of car cleaners and that some terminals have none — leaving filthy cars to be emptied and locked while running from the end of one line to another.

“The bottom line for cleaners is we don’t have enough,” said Matt Ahern, a chair with the union’s division for car equipment.

Terminal Failure

THE CITY reported this week that there have been 526 reports of “soiled” subway car interiors through April 23, with riders sometimes disrupting service by turning trains into toilets at a time when every station bathroom remains shuttered.

“The terminal car cleaning is where they are failing,” Ahern said.

Without hiring more car cleaners, Ahern said the MTA risks seeing more subway cars soiled as weekday ridership has begun regularly topping 2 million — or about 35% of pre-pandemic levels.

“The mayor is talking about a 100% reopening of the city and there’s no talk of hiring cleaners,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, especially with overnight service coming back.”

Cuomo said subway trains “have never been cleaner” and that a commitment from the MTA to maintaining car cleanliness was essential to the return later this month of 24/7 service.

“I told the MTA, for my two cents, 24-hour service, yes,” Cuomo said. “But the trains must remain clean and we have to help the homeless and we can’t go backward on the quality of the service.”

A worker cleans up a soiled subway car at Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island.
A worker cleans up a soiled subway car at Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island.
Obtained by THE CITY

While praising the cleanliness, Cuomo took a swipe at security underground. “Have you been on the subway?” he asked reporters. “Because I have, and I was scared.”

The head of TWU Local 100, Tony Utano, called restoring 24/7 service “a great idea” but also pressed the city to place more homeless outreach workers and police officers in subway stations.

“Too many transit workers and riders are being harassed and assaulted right now,” Utano said.

Staying Clean

An MTA spokesperson said the agency has routinely worked with its labor partners to extend the agreements with cleaning contractors “as circumstances evolve.”

“We’re going to continue to make sure that we get the system as clean as it needs to be for riders,” said the spokesperson, Meredith Daniels.

Riders say they have experienced both ends of the cleanliness spectrum during the pandemic.

“I’ve seen someone throw up on the train and been on trains that smell like urine,” said Bernice Dadzie, 35, who was waiting at the 96th Street stop along the 1/2/3 lines in Manhattan. “The MTA really needs to worry about cleanliness as more people come back.”

“The trains are much cleaner than before the pandemic,” said Fiona Tusaba, 25, who was catching a train at the 148th Street terminal on the No. 3 line in Manhattan. “I just hope they stay that way.”

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