Home Transit LaborTWU Report: Proposed workrule shift could move station agents out of booths

Report: Proposed workrule shift could move station agents out of booths

by Benjamin Kabak

If the MTA has its way, station agents would no longer sit inside token booths but would instead serve multiple roles within their assigned stations. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

For years, the MTA has engaged in an aggressive move to shutter former token booths and reduce the number of full-time staff who sit in these glass cubes occasionally dispensing a MetroCard, a map or a scowl at some straphanger. Even as I’ve supported the effort, it’s still jarring to see the outline of a former booth and no personnel at the entrance to, say, the Bay Ridge-bound Union St. station on 4th Ave., and now the MTA wants to take staffing reassignments to the next logical level.

According to a report in the Daily News, in discussions with the TWU over the union’s next contract, the MTA has proposed doing away with agents in booths entirely at 25 stations and essentially reassigning these employees to serve instead as roving station assistants. It’s a workrule change that has long faced strident union opposition but would do much to make helpers in the subway far more visible while eliminating a position that serves little use these days.

Pete Donohue has the story:

Subway riders will have no choice but buy MetroCards at vending machines under a proposed pilot program that would eliminate all booth positions at 25 stations, The Daily News has learned. Instead of a clerk behind the glass, each station would have a transit worker carrying out a wider-range of duties that might include such tasks as crowd control on platforms, emptying garbage cans and waiting with an ill rider for an ambulance to arrive, according to union and management sources.

Workers in this new role would not handle cash or sell fares but they would still provide riders with travel directions and information, sources said. “The idea is an employee can do a lot more for customers outside of the booth than inside,” an MTA official said.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority brass outlined the proposal in broad terms recently during contract negotiations with Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents bus and subway workers. An MTA spokesman declined to comment because the proposal was part of closed-door contract talks.

As Donohue notes, such a move would represent a major sea change in employee operations as currently “the MTA can’t assign a worker in one job title to duties now proscribed to another title.” The union publicly isn’t interested in this measure because it would obviously reduce staffing levels considerably. It would though lead to a cleaner subway system and a more productive workforce as the vast majority of station agent workhours are spent idle.

Where this idea goes from here is anyone’s guess. For the MTA to realize its net-zero labor projections, the TWU can either accept a shift in workrules, reductions in benefits or a smaller workforce. The union is unlikely to fight against its members’ best interests, and this proposal certainly isn’t something the rank-and-file will embrace even if it has the potential to be a big gain for riders and the MTA.

It’s a positive sign though that the MTA is even talking about this move. Since the end of the token era, station agents have had fewer and fewer responsibilities as station environments receive less and less attention. Shifting workrules to create a more productive and passenger-friendly labor force should be embraced.

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Jeh-fro November 7, 2013 - 12:31 am

I’m for this if it keeps the token booth clerks awake.

LLQBTT November 7, 2013 - 8:49 am

What a narrow view. Now they’ll be able to catch 40 winks on the bench! 😉

JMB November 7, 2013 - 11:02 am

The one at my station has mastered the art of appearing awake, but definitely asleep. Coming home at 930pm, she is completely unconscious, but what she does is tilt her head back a little bit so it makes it look like her eyes are just slightly open. Twice I’ve seen someone pound on the window to wake her up just for the hell of it.

Dan November 8, 2013 - 2:33 am

Oh darn, and here I was wanting to apply to become a station agent so I could sleep on the job all day.

Roxie November 7, 2013 - 1:24 am

I don’t know if I’d have them doing custodial stuff like taking out the trash, but having station agents actually doing things inside the station and taking over for T/Os and conductors in stuff like sick passenger care (preventing large-scale delays when these things happen at choke points) would be a pretty big improvement, I think.

Larry Littlefield November 7, 2013 - 6:56 am

I agree, and this should have happened long ago.

HOWEVER, the union is right in saying this isn’t the same job, and perhaps shouldn’t have the same qualifications and pay.

Imagine, for example, the overnight shift out at Broadway/East New York Station. Having a station agent moving around would increase passenger security, but it would decrease station agent security. You’d need a tougher person to do the job.

John-2 November 7, 2013 - 8:03 am

Agreed. Basically, the MTA wants to transition the clerks and its fare access system at least over to what WMATA’s had in place since 1976 (though they’d also like to transition away from MVMs and to Smart Cards in the near future). But WMATA has never been a 24/7/365 operation, so we’re going into kind of uncharted territory here in terms of job description for overnight requirements and worker security.

Brandon November 7, 2013 - 8:13 am

Its possible that they would still sit in the booths during overnight hours, assuming we arent talking about actually removing them.

The other duties they might be needed for would be lowest overnight (with the possible exception of medical emergencies on trains), and the security issues would be highest.

Also, it might be most important for passengers involved in or witnessing an emergency to know where to find the clerk during the overnight hours.

sharon November 9, 2013 - 7:17 pm

Apple is the hold up. Apple does not like NFC, but prefers using blue tooth or wi-fi. The cell phone companies are also slowing google down with it’s google pay. It used to rely on a part of the phone the providers had control over and blocked from fuctioning. Android Kit-Kat has a work around in it.

Bolwerk November 7, 2013 - 9:41 am

I understand paying people more for a more engaged job, but that’s ridiculous. A station agent is no more or less another potential victim than a member of the general public.

And Broadway/East New York is a perfect example of a station that probably doesn’t need much more than 9-5 customer service coverage anyway.

sharon November 9, 2013 - 7:14 pm

your right, it should have lower pay. They already get paid a good amount for what amounts to a cashier or bank teller. Both get $14 max at the best paying places, not over $30 an hour including pension(which is extra deferred pay)

I have no problem paying good wages to keep a stable work force but, flexibility . A cashier at a Rite Aid stocks shelves when there are few people in the store and return to the register as needed. They also do light cleaning tasks.

The current silo work rules are anti-rider, anti-tax payer and anti middle class.

Michael Sherrell November 7, 2013 - 3:27 am

This is the season when the Transit Unions and MTA Management battle over union contracts, work rules, etc.

It is very possible that this proposal just another aspect of that debate and argument. Since such a proposal has faced strident opposition from the transit union before, that certainly implies that this idea has come up in the past, maybe around contract negotiating time.

MTA Managements gets to be seen as “offering reasonable work rule changes, while the union workers get to be portrayed as wanting to keep jobs where workers fall asleep” – as the debate rolls on. Soon the transit workers talk about their heroic work during Hurricane Sandy, and why they deserve raises – but the “heartless rich managers” – etc. See how the game is played.

At least for now, either side seems to be calling each other nasty names or threatening strikes.

Just my thoughts.

Brandon November 7, 2013 - 7:33 am

Definitely getting them out of the booth to deal with passenger emergencies is a good idea, and will reduce delays.

However, if they are serious about cutting staffing costs, they would do it through OPTO on the CBTC lines. The L alone would certainly have more than 25 extra staff. OPTO on the 4-car G trains seems like an option as well.

With 7 train and Queens Boulevard CBTC on the horizon, the time to deal with this is now. Obviously, this would mean taking on the unions in a big way. Maybe they could offer them a huge pay increase, a la BART?

Nathanael November 7, 2013 - 11:36 am

I figure what they should do is (1) offer all the conductors jobs as trainmen (or station attendants if they prefer), (2) increase train service according to the number of new trainmen created by this change.

Forget “cutting staffing costs”. That way lies union. Rather, keep staffing costs the same *and run more service* with the same staffing levels.

Nathanael November 7, 2013 - 11:38 am

“That way lies union fights.”

Bolwerk November 7, 2013 - 1:10 pm

That might work somewhat for conductors who can be re-deployed as operators, but the booths are probably almost completely redundant. Some could be re-deployed as cleaner maybe.

Nathanael November 8, 2013 - 3:06 am

In London, they’ve been forcing the former ticket sellers to stand outside on the platforms in uniform helping confused people. This has been appreciated by the general public.

Bolwerk November 8, 2013 - 10:16 am

Maybe acceptable at Fulton Street or Union Square, but I can’t imagine that a place like Central Avenue sees enough confused people for it to be worthwhile.

There is no dancing around it: they have too much labor.

SubwayNut November 7, 2013 - 8:34 am

All I can think of is the station agent situation on the CTA in Chicago:

There Cashiers (what they call token clerks) were discontinued in the early 1990s from selling cash and all fares processed at FVMs when their MetroCard clone Chicago Cars (now getting phased out with the introduction of VENTRA, a smart card). All the former cashiers were retrained I belief (non laid off) and become roving customer assistance agents (I don’t actually know their exact job title). The CTA isn’t highering any more people for these roles instead they are contracting with Securitas (the private security contractor, I bet their non-union too) to become the new ‘station agents’ with a security guard now stationed in each station. There are still some CTA veteran employees in this role at certain stations (the former cashiers) but has the ex-cashiers retire the CTA is planning to just replace them with private security guards.

Nathanael November 7, 2013 - 11:38 am

I wouldn’t use Securitas, who are not known for competence, and I seriously doubt that they’re actually cheaper than in-house hiring; outsourcing rarely is. Apart from that it’s not unreasonable.

Fool November 7, 2013 - 9:40 pm

Not true for Union and administrative heavy agencies. Compare some outsourced functions at MTA Bus Co. compared to NYCT.

Ed P in Victoria BC November 7, 2013 - 12:45 pm

We visited Chicago a few years ago and were incredibly impressed by the helpfulness of the station agents. When we got off the train from O’Hare Airport, momentarily bewildered by which exit to take to the street, the agent appeared out of nowhere and pointed out which way to go.

Now that most transactions can be done at vending machines (and in Chicago, we were able to buy the passes we needed in advance by mail) you really don’t need a “token seller” anymore. Much better to be out interacting with customers.

Bolwerk November 7, 2013 - 9:11 am

Doesn’t really go far enough, and is still too rigid. A booth makes sense at Grand Central. A quiet station doesn’t require a full time customer service rep anymore than a bus stop.

Eric Brasure November 7, 2013 - 9:33 am

I’m all for this–but is there any official word from the MTA that the policy is no longer to replace turnstiles with HEETs at stations they remove token booths from?

Alex November 7, 2013 - 10:47 am

Amen. There are even some places that would seriously benefit form HEETs being proactively replaced by standard turnstiles like 7th Ave on the F in Park Slope. The booth is paradoxically in the middle of the mezzanine, far away from all the entrances. Meanwhile, virtually every rider has to deal with the HEETs to enter the station unless they want to risk missing their train to walk to the middle.

Eric Brasure November 7, 2013 - 3:20 pm

Other egregious examples: The Charlton Street entrance of Houston Street, IND Spring Street downtown.

lawhawk November 7, 2013 - 9:49 am

The title issue for clerks may be a nonstarter for the TWU, but the Daily News article indicates that the TWU is considering other changes – including changing seniority rules to need more years before reaching the top of the payscale.

Local 100’s latest list of contract proposals include extending the time it takes a newly hired worker to reach the top pay rate from three to five years, and requiring new hires to pay 2% of base pay for healthcare. Transit workers now pay 1.5% for coverage.

Instead of another three-year contract, Local 100 is proposing a five-year agreement with annual raises between 3% and 4%. It also wants protective partitions on all buses within two years and four weeks maternity leave.

They’re moving in the right direction, but if they give here on moving clerks out of booths, the MTA should be able to shift more resources to the new T service and other areas that need more staffing. The MTA might be able to sell this as a net-zero job loss and put workers on jobs that are critical to station maintenance, customer experience, etc.

Nathanael November 7, 2013 - 11:35 am

As the quote you provide shows, the TWU Local 100 is still engaging in a nasty “Got ours, sucks to be you” approach, under which more senior (older) workers continue to get their same old featherbedding and high pay, while new workers get worse everything.

This is the sort of nasty, mean behavior which Larry Littlefield has condemned repeatedly as the work of “Generation Greed”.

This sort of proposal is what gutted the UAW in Detroit and ruined its reputation. It lacks *solidarity*. It is a *bad idea*.

TWU Local 100 is run by bad people. New hires should, frankly, start their own union if they want decent treatment.

The MTA’s work rules proposal is a practical proposal which is overdue, and was already done by pretty much every subway system in the country. Though as Bolwerk says, some stations still should have full-time booths (Grand Central).

handicap accessible November 7, 2013 - 10:04 am

Will they still be available to open the gate for wheelchairs/strollers/bikes, or in these stations will those people have to wait for some considerate straphanger to open it for them?

D in Bushwick November 7, 2013 - 12:04 pm

Most newer transit systems don’t have live attendants in booths. This is just a holdover from 100 years ago before ticket machines existed.
But, EVERY station should have at least one full-time janitor keeping the platform clean and an eye on everyone else.
It would seem all current union workers would have to be fired to do this because their obvious slug-like attitude would be in conflict with actually doing some physical labor. They would be fired if they worked in a hotel or restaurant.
We all see and know this…

Demetria November 7, 2013 - 12:47 pm

Quite right. Contracts with such inflexibility is mind boggling. Moreover the positioning/height of the current booths make them uninviting and makes it difficult to interact with the booth attendant.

Some observations of attendants over the last 12 months:

1. The employees are rarely kept up to date with service changes in my opinion, mooting their benefit as sources of information. Case in point. The M train stops running in Queens sometime between 10.30 and 11.30pm. I never know quite when it stops. This is information you would expect the station attendants to have to hand. But in my experience they either say they don’t know, or they give out wrong information.

2. Lost and Found. The one time this year I found someone’s wallet on a bench in a station the station attendant said specifically that he didn’t want it, he didn’t want to have to report it and that I should just deal with it myself. He even pushed the wallet back through the glass opening after initially accepting it.

3. Many stations have more than one entrance, and have platform arrangements such that no crossover is possible. For these stations we may as well have no attendant.

4. Rudeness – When asking a station attendant at 23rd street why, after waiting for 45 minutes the first N train to reach the station didn’t stop, instead crawled past the platform and disappeared into the tunnel. I asked him if there was a problem with the Broadway line and asked him when the next train was expected. Midway through my question he turned around and walked to the other side of the booth, ignoting me. When I tried to engage him again he yelled at me to “use my head”. I asked him for his name and the name of his supervisor and he yelled “No!” back at me. Not that I expect complaining would have had any effect at all.

5. The issue of people with mobility issues being able to enter through the door is resolved by a CCTV/remote link system. Expensive sure? But as expensive as one toll booth agent at one station for one year. Almost certainly not.

Bolwerk November 7, 2013 - 1:21 pm

Most of the propaganda defending the preservation of their positions is disingenuous or dishonest.

I bet they’d be a lot more polite if they weren’t sitting in a shell.

pete November 7, 2013 - 1:44 pm

MVMs are horrible. They dont give more than a couple dollars in change (meanwhile while their suburban cousin the TVM will give $20 in gold dollar coins). So if you have a $20 you can’t buy anything. They dont take $100s, $2s, or half dollars. If you slip a bill sized piece of paper a dozen times in a row through a MVM, it goes into coins only mode. Then you find the MVM bank where each one has a fault (no coins, no receipts, no bills). Since the number of MVMs (per station?, per the city?) are limited by union rules, in some stations, you can see scars from removed MVMs on the floor and electrical boxes on the wall. Where there used to be 2 or 3 full size is now just 1 full size MVM.

Full size MVMs can never be opened except by a armed guards. So the techs have a armored car guard standing next to them to fix the MVMs. That is another reason why they are always faulted with something.

Dan November 8, 2013 - 2:39 am

This is a very valid point, just yesterday I had to put money onto my Metrocard, I had a $20 bill but I only wanted to put $10 on my Metrocard. The station agent did it pretty quickly for me (albeit while chatting on her phone the whole time with a Bluetooth headset).

Rob November 7, 2013 - 2:03 pm

25 stations?! That’s barely 5% of the total. In a normal place, hardly worth talking abt.

Even in DC, the so-called ‘station managers’ walk around outside the booth. [but then again, they even have opto there]

Someone should tell the union that michelle says getting off their asses and walking around would be good for them, even if their policy is the customers be damned.

John Ruppert November 10, 2013 - 1:00 am

I think that focusing on how shifting roles will reduce staffing levels is a problem. In order to get results, management should make it clear how many more hands are needed for a variety of activities currently understaffed and highly needed. Simple cleaning of stations is not the issue. With a workforce reassignment, perhaps we can begin to actually maintain these stations and reduce capital maintenance costs. Accumulated dirt and grime retains moisture and leads to more rapid depredation of capital. Thus moving roles without cutting staffing may in the long run be budget friendly. It will lead to a more pleasant station environment and a potential reduction in capital costs on stations (though considering station maintenance is always behind this may not affect real but idealized budgets). In all, I believe negotiations should be focused on goals of the organization that are beyond that of reducing staff costs. Rather shifting riles can have significant impacts to the quality of service, and be budget neutral. Including clauses in negotiation contracts that ensure adequate staff levels to maintain a certain quality of production based on a standard quality of workmanship will be important bargaining chips for the MTA. In this way, there is a gain for the MTA and a neutral impact for the unions. Still, station agents will have to do more work, but good management can certainly develop strategies to increase employee motivation and investment in their roles.

This is something that the MTA has needed to do for years and positioning their bargaining chips in a way that is union neutral is possible and still beneficial to the MTA.

Serge November 14, 2013 - 2:17 pm

Soon there will be no jobs left for anyone in this country.

Then I hope we consider the Swiss model of a base pay for everyone, including the non-working, else we are heading for a class war.

joe November 19, 2013 - 10:35 pm

Your all out of your minds if you think this is a good idea ,first off if you have no booth for them to go to for metrocards where will you be able to get change when those machines only give change up to $8.00, or when someone is sick or needing assistance how will they contact anyone for you ? or if there is a delay in train service how will they find out and let you know. customers are safer when the agents are in the booth assisting you. to those agents who are sleeping ok at 3 am in a very quiet station where the only thing alive aside from the agent are four legged and dont speak i think you need to cut them a little slack and the majority of you are jealous you dont have the job? well you could have gotten it the same way they did by taking the test when it comes out. Oh yea and when you need your card checked because it wont swipe who are you going to come to? oh wait your going to jump over the turnstile or go through the gate which is illegal and you can get ticketed and or go to jail . yea its a smart idea for you to support this measure .(a huge amount of sarcasm in that last sentence)

Station Agent December 15, 2013 - 2:36 pm

Joe, I want to thank you for your reply to this post. It seems that our job is underestimated by most people and taken for granted by others. The station agent position is there to serve the customer as well as provide a sense of safety and security to that same customer. MVM’s are not reliable and only give $8 in coin back. I personally use the MVM to buy a metrocard to use on the PATH at times and was a victim of its reliability when it took my $20 and gave me a receipt showing “failed transaction.” I realize that there are some strong personalities behind the booth that the public has to deal with, but a lot of the customers we serve are service people themselves and forget that, just like them, we are human and have bad days and things that we deal with in our own lives that affect us in different ways. People get caught up in the money we make from out side of the booth but have no idea about the pressures and issues we face behind the booth. As station agents we serve as eyes and ears of the station To protect the public and the infrastructure of the NYCTA. The point is, if the MTA’s idea of what a station agent should be is put into effect, not only will it put customers in danger, but it would also put the station agent assigned to work the station in danger. Is that what we really want? On top of this, the MTA continues to cut service, while justifying fare increase after fare increase, but you take issue with the station agent? How does that help anything?


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