Workers who were dumped with next to no notice from their fill-in jobs as subway car cleaners are getting a measure of payback, THE CITY has learned.
More than 70 workers who were let go at the end of last year began receiving compensation for vacation and sick days after THE CITY last month reported on how they were abruptly terminated by a subcontractor via WhatsApp messages.
“To them, we do not exist, and they have not shown face,” said Wilson Vasquez, who started working overnight shifts as a cleaning supervisor at the South Ferry terminal in May 2020. “If not for that story [in THE CITY], we may not have gotten the money that was owed to us, but we’ve heard nothing else from them.”
The payouts brought a smidge of relief to contract cleaners who scrubbed and disinfected subway cars for nearly three years of the pandemic — then became expendable as the MTA ramped up hiring for 900 staff cleaning positions.
“In working to help pick up the pieces after our members received almost no notice about the changes, we have helped our members secure monies owed to them by the outgoing contractor,” Denis Johnston, executive vice president and New York commercial division chair for 32BJ-SEIU, said in a statement. “[We] got their health care benefits extended 30 days and have advised them to apply for new jobs as this cleaning work is ultimately going in house at the MTA this summer.”
Several former cleaners and supervisors said in Spanish that the money did not take away the sting of being notified in late December that they would be out of work by New Year’s Eve, when Innovative Facilities Services LLC closed its cleaning operation at the No. 1 line’s Lower Manhattan terminal.
“It’s something, but it’s something we were owed,” said Maria Japa, who worked as a supervisor at South Ferry.
Another cleaning company, NV Maintenance, last month began posting cleaners at the terminal.
Japa, who is not in the union because she was a supervisor, said she is still waiting to be paid back for union dues that she said were taken out of her paychecks. A spokesperson for the union that represents the cleaners said 32BJ-SEIU is looking at how to have those dues refunded for supervisors.
Vasquez said he received more than $800 in vacation and sick pay, while former cleaner Edison Garces told THE CITY that his payout came to more than $900.
“A lot of weeks, I worked seven days a week or did double shifts,” Garces said. “We more than earned what they paid us.”
‘The Last Thing You Lose Is Hope’
Sources close to the deal told THE CITY that Innovative Facilities Services had been subcontracted to clean and disinfect subway cars at the Manhattan end of the No. 1 line by Kellermeyer Bergensons Services. KBS, a California company that says it provides services at more than 100,000 locations nationally, was among the 21 third-party cleaning contractors brought in by the MTA in 2020, as the transit agency’s workforce was decimated by worker illnesses and deaths.
Those sources added that the MTA last fall offered an extension to KBS of its South Ferry cleaning contract into early 2023, but that the company declined the deal. Instead, it fell to the subcontractor, Innovative Facilities Services, to let the workers know they were being let go.
Those messages arrived via WhatsApp.
“They mistreated us because they could and because we didn’t speak [English],” Vasquez said. “We worked for them for so long and at the end, it was like we weren’t even there.”
In a statement, a KBS spokesperson said Innovative Facilities Services “values its long-standing relationship with 32BJ-SEIU and the work of every temporary employees who contributed to the emergency cleaning for the MTA,” under the contract that expired on December 31.
“IFS would welcome the opportunity to perform cleaning services for the MTA in the future and to employ members of 32BJ-SEIU,” said the spokesperson, Erik Bratt.
The MTA last July posted a listing for subway cleaner jobs that start at $19.03 per hour, with pay increasing to $31.71 an hour after six years. The agency has so far hired more than 500 car cleaners, and anticipates phasing out the remaining contract cleaners by the end of 2023, according to an MTA spokesperson.
Last year, the workers also had to contend with a marked increase in the number of reports of soiled subway cars, as THE CITY reported in July.
Several of the former contract cleaners said that they remain optimistic of being hired by the MTA.
“The hope is still there, the last thing you lose is hope,” said Robert Valdez, who started as a cleaner in May 2020 before being promoted to a supervisory position. “I would go back — why not? I would just want things to be better.”