When I spoke with then-New York City Transit President Howard Roberts nearly two years ago, he discussed his plan to improve station cleanliness through a reorganization of the system’s maintenance workers and cleaners. By spending enough, he wagered, the MTA could solve one of its customer service woes: dirty walls, grime-filled staircase and garbage-strewn stations. Cleaner stations would mean a more pleasant commute for us all.
As the MTA’s finances headed south though, daily station maintenance went with it, and 15 months ago, the MTA confirmed that less money led to dirtier stations. The MTA had to cut approximately 100 cleaners, and subway stations and train cars would inevitably be dirtier.
But what if it’s not the budget cuts that make our subway cars sticky? What if it’s the attitude of those tasked to clean them? In an undercover investigation, that’s just the question WABC set out to answer. As you might imagine, their camera crews found workers slacking on the job — jobs for which they get $23 dollars an hour. The story is embedded above, but I’ll excerpt:
Perhaps you have noticed the subway cars have been dirtier lately. Eyewitness News had been told, it is because of budget cuts and workers laid-off. However, our undercover cameras found another problem: from the #4 Line in the Bronx, to the N Line in Queens, to the L in Brooklyn, we found subway cleaners more interested in reading the newspaper, chatting with fellow workers or texting on the phone than doing their jobs. Jobs for which are paid $23 an hour.
At the end of the D-line in the Bronx, cars come all the way from Coney Island and are in need of serious cleaning. There is trash and spilled soda, shoe-sticking filth, yet Eyewitness News observed a team of four cleaners one afternoon and found most of them doing very little. A lot of them stand around talking to each other or to the engineer, while one worker cleans a car or two on each train. It meant the majority of train cars on the D-Line would head back out, having to never been cleaned.
We found similar examples on the 4-Line, where it seems for some cleaners, reading takes priority. One worker sits in the air-conditioned car reading for about 6 minutes before getting up and leaving. The car left exactly how it arrived with papers on the seat, trash on the floor, and mud and dirt by the door.
WABC’s video shows the workers not very hard at work, and those with whom the reporters spoke say the problem stems from a lack of adequate supervision. These cleaners generally are not well supervised, and management at Transit says it cannot monitor everyone.
“With the level of resources we have, we don’t have one-on-one supervision for every employee,” Transit president Thomas Prendergast said, later adding. “If you have cases where the train has not been cleaned and trash on floor and sitting down that’s a management failure and I’ll clearly state that and we will have to do things to control that.”
Subway cleanliness has been a decades-long problem for the MTA, but that investigative report gives them an opening to do something. The authority has been engaged in a year-long effort to improve worker efficient and cut back on waste. Convincing its high-paid cleaners to do their work should become a top goal. It should both save money and make the subways a more pleasant place for the MTA’s customers. No one, after all, wants to ride in a car with a sticky floor, but these days, what choice do we have?