T officials want janitor contracts cleaned up
Board members angry over workers’ losing health benefits
MEMBERS OF THE board overseeing the MBTA lambasted the private vendors who took over the transit agency’s cleaning operations, suggesting the contracts should be voided after the companies cut back workers hours to make them ineligible for health care benefits.
“At this point, I don’t trust them,” said Brian Lang, a member of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. “We’re hearing stories of them bringing in temps, who they pay a lot less, instead of paying people enough so they can get health care. That’s unconscionable. We have to have standards for contractors, and as far as I’m concerned, these contractors aren’t living up to our standards.”
The angry reactions came during an update on the performance of the janitorial services contracts with ABM and S.J. Services at the weekly meeting of the control board. MBTA officials had extended the contracts with the companies in September but made it a performance-based contract with payments contingent on hitting certain benchmarks. With set staffing levels no longer required, the companies moved most of the janitors to late-night rather than having separate day and evening shifts
Janitors, who are unionized, had complained to the board that the change resulted in some layoffs but also in a number of workers having their weekly schedule reduced to below 30 hours – cutting some workers by as little as five hours a week – the threshold that qualifies workers for health care benefits.
Though the vendors came in for harsh criticism, MBTA General Counsel John Englander cautioned board members about their limits in dealing with the actions.
“We have to remember these are our contractors first, they’re not our employees,” he said.
But board members said they didn’t expect this kind of performance when the contract was extended in September.
“I don’t think anyone knew how this was going to go and now we’re going back and trying to fix it,” board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said after the meeting. “I think it’s really clear we are going to have to do a lot of research and a lot of digging…This shouldn’t just be a question of whether our stations are cleaner than they were in September.”
David Shea, president of S.J. Services, offered a preemptive defense of his company’s performance at the beginning of the meeting during the public comments period. Shea said the company does a lot of work for many state agencies. He also said that by shifting workers to late night, it made the cleanup process “more efficient.” But he made no mention of the reduced workforce or benefits.
Eric Stoothoff, the MBTA’s deputy chief operating officer, presented a report that included cleanliness ratings for T stations and bus stops in the wake of the contract extensions in September. Between March and December last year, based on 20 different measures, the companies averaged a score of 91.5 on a scale of 0-100, which fell in the acceptable range of performance even though the vendors were not yet being held to performance standards. Since the beginning of this year, the average performance score has been 97.8, a result achieved with fewer man-hours and with most cleaners moved to overnight shifts.
“A lot is still happening during the day, emptying trash barrels, cleaning up spills,” Stoothoff said.
Representatives from the agency’s operations department will be on hand next week to offer more details and board members asked Stoothoff to return in January with an update on both performance and more data on the workforce reductions.