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Yaneth Ochoa, a Colombian woman who lives in Queens, was glad to find a job cleaning the subway last summer, as demolition jobs had dried up during the pandemic.
But as trains rolled into the Jamaica-179 Street Station in Queens, she learned she would not just be wiping down cars to remove traces of the coronavirus. Like workers at end-of-line stations all over New York City, Ms. Ochoa, 30, was expected to scrub away grime, sputum and even human excrement, she said, without adequate training or special equipment.
Instead, the cleaning crews were given a few rags, a bucket of cleaning solution and, according to several workers, a simple set of instructions: “Clean it like it’s your house.”
Cleaning the New York City subway has always been a dirty job. But when the pandemic hit last spring, it became even more challenging. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered that trains be shut down overnight for cleaning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority turned to contractors to help undertake the monumental task of scouring the trains in the nation’s largest transit system.
The thousands of workers the contractors hired — largely low-income immigrants from Latin America — were envisioned as a stopgap measure, as M.T.A. workers were falling ill and dying of the virus. At the same time, ridership and revenue had plummeted and the agency found itself in an intense budget crunch.
But nearly a year later, the workers are still toiling at stations all over the city, some paid as little as half as much as the M.T.A. employees who did the same work before the pandemic began, and many without access to health insurance.
Now, as the M.T.A. prepares to welcome more riders, the workers are pushing back, raising concerns about their safety, salaries and working conditions that they say feel like exploitation.
Their complaints illustrate the challenges of keeping the sprawling subway system cleaner than ever because of public health concerns during the pandemic. They also appear to show how the M.T.A.’s contractors have relied on a labor force that has been desperate for work at a time when hundreds of thousands have lost jobs in cleaning, construction and restaurants.
Ms. Ochoa, who earned around $15 per hour, New York State’s minimum wage, finally quit after refusing to clean a train smeared with excrement with just a few rags, she said. By then, she said, she had worked for nearly three months without a place to eat lunch or access to the station bathroom.
“It’s so scary to be left without work right now that you’ll accept almost anything,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the M.T.A., Abbey Collins, said the agency was disinfecting the subway with the help of “licensed and reputable outside companies whose performance is monitored regularly.” The cleaning program, which the M.T.A. plans to continue indefinitely, will cost about $300 million this year. The authority said it plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Transit officials said all workers had access to station bathrooms, but not break rooms, because of capacity issues related to social distancing. Contractors are required to supply proper personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., and cleaning materials to their employees, officials said.
They said the M.T.A. had hired an outside firm to conduct daily inspections of contractors working at end-of-line stations. It had investigated workers’ allegations and had not found any violations since June, when it addressed issues related to P.P.E.
Leaders of the Transit Workers Union, however, said they were alarmed by workers’ accounts. They would prefer that transit workers, who have been cleaning stations throughout the pandemic, also resume cleaning train cars, they said, but as long as contract workers are on the job, they should have similar protections to those given to the agency’s employees.
“If you’ve got workers on the property for a year, it’s a matter of basic equality,” said Zachary Arcidiacono, the chair of the Train Operators Division for the union.
The New York Times interviewed a dozen contract cleaners, including three who in late February had met with Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and chief executive of the M.T.A. to describe their job and share a list of “needs” with transit agency leadership.
Their accounts paint a picture of dismal working conditions, and highlight their unequal treatment compared with transit cleaners, who are paid up to $30 an hour and enjoy health insurance and other benefits, uniforms and MetroCards to swipe themselves into the system.
Unlike transit workers, the contract workers are not yet eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, though they say their work routinely exposes them to unmasked passengers and dangerous waste. They are seeking better working conditions and a path to M.T.A. jobs.
Beatriz Muñoz, 38, cleaned trains for six months last year at the terminus of the Q line at 96th Street in Manhattan. When cars arrived that were closed to passengers because they had been sullied, “we were the ones who had to go in there,” she said. “We would be praying to God that we wouldn’t get sick.”
A worker named Juan described chasing down purse-snatchers and running to help co-workers threatened by homeless people who had commandeered their brooms and mops. “And we’re invisible,” he said. The Times is using only his first name because he is still employed as a cleaner and fears retribution.
Transit officials said they had called on City Hall to send more police officers and mental health workers into the subway to ensure that all workers and passengers were safe.
LN Pro Services, the contractor that employed Ms. Ochoa in Queens, disputed several workers’ claims. Lily Sierra, the chief executive of the company, said workers never lacked access to bathrooms and managers were on hand to fetch missing cleaning materials and protective supplies. She said new hires were paid an hourly wage of $18 an hour; later, employees made more.
Workers employed by other contractors have voiced similar complaints, according to Francisco Tecaxco, an organizer at New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, a workers’ rights organization in Queens that gathered the accounts of two dozen people employed by about five contractors and helped to organize the meeting with the M.T.A. in February.
“Many people were getting paid minimum wage or just a dollar or two more,” Mr. Tecaxco said. “The conditions were terrible.”
Ms. Muñoz, who cleaned trains on the Q line, earned $20 an hour. She brought her own mask, gloves and soap to clean her rags, she said; her employer, NV Maintenance Services, gave workers only a fabric mask without a filter, and gloves that easily burst, she said.
Ms. Muñoz, who cleaned the offices of an architecture firm before the pandemic, said the work was taxing and the rules were strict. Workers were let go for arriving minutes late, or for calling in sick, including from Covid-19, she said.
They were eventually told not to drink beverages on the job so they would not need to use the bathroom, and because the bottles cluttered the work space. “It was an oven in the summer,” she said. “We had to sneak sips of water.”
When inspectors came, she said, no one said a word. “Truthfully, we were all afraid.”
Victor Noce, of NV Maintenance Services, said workers had unfettered access to bathrooms, P.P.E. and materials, and that the company had received perfect ratings on inspections, both scheduled and covert. He said in an email that descriptions offered by Ms. Muñoz and other workers, “seem made up to me.”
Ms. Muñoz said she was fired in November without explanation. As the sole provider for her four children and parents in Puebla, Mexico, she pleaded to keep her job.
Since then, she has not found steady work; she cleans someone’s home every two weeks. As for her former co-workers at the end of the Q line, “My compañeros are still there,” Ms. Muñoz said. “Nothing has changed.”