Starting in May of 2020, Maria Japa spent eight hours a day scrubbing filth from subway cars at South Ferry terminal, as part of a corps of fill-in workers from cleaning companies contracted by the MTA in the early days of the pandemic.
“We cleaned up fecal matter, vomit, bedbugs,” Japa told THE CITY. ”We had to deal with aggressive people, we had to deal with the homeless.” She said she would regularly work 15 days in a row.
But just days after Christmas, the 41-year-old Bronx woman and other contracted workers at South Ferry received WhatsApp messages from higher-ups at Innovative Facility Services notifying them they would be out of their jobs by Dec. 31, 2022 because the company was closing its cleaning operation.
“We knew it was a contract job, no one thought this was permanent,” said Victor Martinez, 60, who began working as a contract cleaner at South Ferry in 2020. Martinez spoke to THE CITY in Spanish, as did all workers quoted here. “But we should have at least gotten proper notification.
“Instead, we got, ‘Don’t show up tomorrow.’”
The abrupt dismissal of more than 70 low-wage Latino workers who cleaned and disinfected subway cars in the depths of the COVID crisis has left many looking for answers and new jobs — and raised questions about the tactics of the company that let them go on less than a week’s notice.
A top official with 32BJ-SEIU, the union that represents the cleaners, said contractors normally receive at least 30 days’ notice before their deals expire — and that he was “shocked” the workers were let go “with next to no notice.”
“We think it would have been better for all parties, for the workers, to have had 30 days’ notice, and for the union to have that 30 days’ notice so that we could have intervened at an earlier date,” said Denis Johnston, executive vice president and New York commercial division chair for 32BJ-SEIU.
THE CITY has learned that the MTA last fall offered to extend into early 2023 its South Ferry cleaning contract with Kellermeyer Bergensons Services, a California-based company that bills itself as North America’s largest facilities services provider.
Instead, sources said, KBS rejected the deal, leaving the contract to expire on Dec. 31. It then fell to the subcontractor, Innovative Facilities Services, to send termination notices to cleaners and supervisors.
“This was a low blow,” said Leonys Rosario, 38, who had worked as a cleaner at South Ferry since last January. “We’re working people with families.”
Johnston said 32BJ is also looking into claims that cleaning-crew supervisors — who are not union members — had union dues deducted from their paychecks.
“The union will not keep a dime of that money because they were not required to make those dues payments if they were supervisors,” he said. “We’ll refund the money provided that the employer did not remit that money to the union.”
KBS did not respond to questions from THE CITY and there was no answer at phone numbers provided by multiple workers for Innovative Facilities Services.
“They just don’t pick up,” said Alba Dilone, a 35-year-old mother of two who began working as a cleaner last April. “We just want answers on what happened to us.”
While the MTA still uses contracted subway cleaners at some terminals — including at South Ferry, where the company NV Maintenance began posting workers this month — the agency anticipates they will be phased out later this year.
Agency records show the MTA spent more than $124 million in 2020 on contractors who hired workers to clean and disinfect trains at terminals, and nearly $100 million the next year to back up a workforce reeling from the absences, deaths and retirements that accompanied the pandemic.
As THE CITY reported in September, many of the contract cleaners were hoping for in-house jobs when their gigs were up, but they couldn’t legally be given preferential treatment in the application process.
An MTA spokesperson this week said the transit agency has so far hired 500 car cleaners and expects to hire 400 more as part of a push to beef up its internal cleaning staff.
“The MTA is working as fast as possible to hire cleaners to make sure we can provide the best possible environment for New Yorkers who expect and deserve a clean environment,” said the spokesperson, Tim Minton.
The MTA, as well as Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway workers, have encouraged the contracted workers to apply for jobs as staff cleaners. According to an MTA job posting, starting pay for those positions is $19.03 per hour, increasing to $31.71 per hour after six years.
“We have a contract with negotiated wages, healthcare, due process and other benefits,” Local 100 President Richard Davis said of the in-house positions. “Workers who are organized and united under the same banner are always in a stronger position when dealing with an employer.”
Several of the contract workers let go in late December told THE CITY they have applied for those MTA cleaner positions.
Many said they still hope to be paid for unused vacation and sick days.
“We went to work when no one else wanted to,” said Robert Valdez, 36, who started as a contract cleaner in May 2020 before becoming a supervisor. “The injustice is that we were fired from one day to the next.
“It has disgusted a lot of us.”