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.

But until Monday, there were no details offered to board members, who learned that ABM laid off 19 of their 100-plus employees and reduced the hours of six other full-time workers. S.J. Services laid off just two workers, but the company reduced the hours of 51 other employees to below the qualifying level for benefits, including cutting the hours of seven workers by less than five hours.

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.

The report also showed that there are just four daytime inspectors and a single nighttime inspector to gauge the performance at 124 stations, 47 bus stops, and 50 other facilities. The T has developed a smartphone app for inspectors to report their findings but board members questioned whether the paucity of inspectors limits their ability to do the job required of them.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

“I did not have an understanding of the cleaning inspection process at that time and hearing the questions we asked today, neither did most of us,” said Tibbits-Nutt. “I think the amount of staffers overseeing this has obviously been inadequate.”

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.