In undercover effort, MTA rates station clerks


The MTA’s station agents have made the headlines lately. Over the summer and into September, the stories concerned the MTA’s plans to eliminate a few hundred agents and the potential impact unstaffed stations would have on the system. A few weeks into the great Station Agent Elimination Project, nothing much has changed underground.

Meanwhile, at the same time as efforts to cut the station agents gained headlines, the MTA was engaged in something of a sting operation. Using college interns to pose as subway riders, the line general manager on the Number 4 line graded his station clerks. Eitan Gavish and Pete Donohue have a little bit more about this story:

Subway managers on the No. 4 line used college interns posing as straphangers to rate clerks in terms of how helpful and courteous they were when approached. “It’s like a mystery shopper program,” NYC Transit Charles Seaton said Friday, referring to storeowners’ use of fake shoppers to review staff and other retail workers. The young subway sleuths in Operation Courtesy made their rounds on the Lexington Ave. line during the summer.

Results are still being compiled, but some workers behind the glass apparently needed immediate polishing. “Some have been spoken to on an informal basis,” Seaton said, stressing the reviews will not lead to disciplinary charges. “You get all kinds. You get nice people, some not so nice at all,” said a clerk, who also did not want to be named.

William Henderson, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said he believed the vast majority of clerks were professional. “There are people who are very good, friendly and adept at dealing with the public, and some who may need to be coached a little bit on how to do a better job,” Henderson said.

That is, word for word, the Daily News’ entire story. Considering the implications of the eventual report and the ways in which Transit went about assessing their workers, that’s a rather short piece.

So without having the report in front of me, I can make a few educated guess about what we’ll find out and what it means for the station clerks. I think we’ll find out, as Henderson said, that some are better than others at their jobs, but I think we’ll find out that far more of the station clerks are either apathetic or disrespectful toward straphangers in need. I say that not out of malice for the station clerks but from first-hand experience underground. Some station clerks are very friendly; others can’t be bothered for the time of day and wouldn’t know their ways around the neighborhoods in which they work.

The real impact of this report though will be twofold. First, how will the MTA work to correct the problem of poor customer relationships? In the end, station clerks, while they serve a job, are the faces of the MTA. They are what many New Yorkers consider to be the epitome of the MTA. If the station clerks are rude, straphangers think poorly of the entire system. If the experiences at the booths are bad, riders are bound to consider the agency inept in its hiring and personnel decisions. A better training program for station clerks will be a must.

On the other hand, how will station clerks — union employees, at that — respond to the MTA’s backhanded attempts at judging them? At a time when Transit is trying to eliminate station clerks to save jobs, the clerks are being undermined in a sense by their bosses. Instead of an open review process, the MTA has employed an undercover system to judge first hand just how these employees are doing in their jobs. At a time when labor relations are tense, this move might not go over too well.

The commenters on the Daily News aren’t too sympathetic to the station clerks, and stories of rudeness abounds. I’ll pass final judgment when the report is released, but in this area, the MTA can show improvement.

17 Responses to “In undercover effort, MTA rates station clerks”

  1. John says:

    Isn’t this really the only way to do a review that’s at all accurate? If it were “open” then they’d just put on a happy face for the reviewers.

    • Oh, I agree. But as some union members who comment here have shown, the MTA employees don’t like the criticism that much. I can see why people would feel insulted or undermined in their work when an undercover investigation into how they interact with passengers — customers, in this case — is revealed.

  2. Mike HC says:

    Come on. I don’t think you needed undercover agents to figure out most of the MTA clerks were useless, unapproachable and rude. Like Ben noted, anybody who has ever dealt with them already knows this.

    I think the MTA just needed some concrete evidence and research to point to when they cut jobs. When the Union cries foul, they just point to these “reports.”

  3. rhywun says:

    It’s the same mix of helpful and rude people you’ll find at the post office and the DMV, or at any government agency. None of these agencies have any incentive to improve their staff, because none of them have any competition.

  4. Scott E says:

    The fact that this was initiated by the line manager of the #4 line (I think) speaks volumes. The whole line manager concept had two goals: (1) to eliminate some of the bureaucracy in getting things done, and (2) encourage some sort of competition between lines and line managers. Clearly, this guy wants the Lexington Line to be a nicer line to ride than, say, the Sixth Avenue line. I think we should value his initiative, and also respect the restraint he has shown in not denouncing his public-facing staff to the press.
    (Personally, I think he’s got an intrinsic advantage in that his line invokes calm, positive, and relaxing emotions with its green color, whereas the color bullets on the 7th and 6th Avenue lines scream “Stop!” and “Look out!”. Poor J/M/Z brown is just dirty. — but I’m sure I’ll be accused of reaching a bit here).

    • Kid Twist says:

      A bit? 🙂

    • I’d agree with you on the color analysis, but the bullets just don’t dominate. With the new trains, in fact, the colored bullets live on only in the map and exterior signage. I don’t think that’s pervasive enough to present any sort of emotional impact.

      Good points though on the line manager aspect to this operation.

      • rhywun says:

        There’s a few reasons I bemoan the removal of the colored bullets from the new trains, but their emotional impact on riders is a new one 🙂

        • R2 says:

          Especially since it’s even more difficult to read the much tinier (even if better lit) LED on the front indicating which train it is on the R142 and R160s. Thank goodness I still have eagle-eye vision.

          • rhywun says:

            Yeah, and the wording on the side displays is even worse. It’s like they recycled LED displays from around 1980. I get the point that digital displays are cheaper and more flexible, but I’ve seen hand-held calculators with better displays.

    • Scott E says:

      I warned you I was reaching a bit!!

  5. TCeez says:

    Keep waiting for the official report…

    I predict a completely statistically insignificant sample with no real findings or fixed criteria. Lets just say that this seems to be pulled out of someone’s a**

    • Kid Twist says:

      Here are the criteria: An employee is either rude or he isn’t. You don’t statistics to document that.

      • rhywun says:

        To be fair, that’s a completely subjective call. How do you measure “rudeness”…? The only thing you could go by is customer complaints and is there even a facility for that?

        • John says:

          You do the “secret shopper” thing and they fill out surveys for specific employees. Yes it’s subjective, but if you do it enough (a few times per person) you’ll get an idea of who’s rude and who’s not.

  6. Ben W. says:

    Funny, OurMTA advocates just this:

    Stores often hire “secret shoppers” to test the shopping experience in their stores. The MTA could do this just as well, to ensure that its own workers are always polite and helpful. The end result would be a brighter, smoother-running New York transit system.


  1. […] managers on the No. 4 line used undercover college students posing as subway riders to rate Metropolitan Transportation Authority station agents. [2nd Avenue […]

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