Next Stop: Cut Corners?

July 17, 2014

For over 10 years, Marta Medina has helped ensure that the millions of riders who use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) have clean bathrooms, stairs and elevators. Her work also includes keeping subway maps and signs graffiti free and trash cans empty and sanitary.

“Let me tell you that the stations require a lot of care,” said Medina. Too many times to count she has had to clean vomit, excrement and blood so that riders would not be exposed to the pathogens.

Yet the cleanliness that riders deserve could be put at risk if MBTA contracts cuts go forward, not to mention the health risks the remaining workers would face on the job.

Seeking to reduce costs, SJ Services and ABM, the two companies contracted by the MBTA to clean its stations, are looking to cut cleaning staff by one-third and reduce the hours of those still on the job by Sept. 1, 2014. This past spring, SEIU Local 32BJ reached out to MassCOSH to help the union study just what its workforce might face if such drastic cuts are put into place.

Weeks later, on June 30, MassCOSH Labor and Environment Coordinator Tolle Graham shared some of MassCOSH’s preliminary findings at a Boston City Council hearing.

“A janitor assigned to a busy T-station told us that he typically finds three to four needles a week during his cleaning duties,” said Graham. “Janitors also are expected to do heavy lifting and repetitive tasks to empty trash and shovel snow and ice in the winter. This work already has the potential for causing musculoskeletal injuries to the shoulders and back, as well as costly worker compensation claims. Some workers are reporting that they don’t have enough time to do the work they’re currently assigned, so they are rushing to get things done, increasing their risk of injury. With an even higher workload, it is not hard to predict that cleaning tasks will be sped up while the standards of care for the public will be lowered.”

Cecilio Cruz Rodriguez, who has cleaned the MBTA for 13 years, expressed concerns about the cut’s impacts.

“With new weekend late night extended service, stations will be more dirty and there won’t be enough staff to maintain them,” said Rodriguez.

MassCOSH’s study involves interviews with janitors to document the problems they’re experiencing. MassCOSH will also draw information from other studies to look at the workers’ compensation costs of overworked workers as well as indirect costs associated with injuries and illnesses such as lost productivity, re-training, hiring new employees, and administrative time. The study will ultimately help the MBTA better evaluate its contractor staffing needs by looking at factors that include worker and public health and safety.

According to Roxana Rivera, district leader of 32J SEIU District 615, “If you let the vendors decide how many janitors it takes to clean, you will see them cutting corners and putting it on the backs of workers.”