Metro

MBTA moves to privatize customer service jobs

The MBTA plans to privatize the jobs of many customer service employees in its stations, which the transit agency said could reduce costs by up to $8.3 million annually.

David Kamerman/Globe staff/file

The MBTA plans to privatize the jobs of many customer service employees in its stations, which the transit agency said could reduce costs by up to $8.3 million annually.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to privatize the jobs of many customer service employees in its stations, a move intended to manage costs by shifting some agents to needed roles as subway operators while hiring contractors to interact with riders.

Dozens of workers assigned to customers service posts at MBTA stations would be replaced by private-sector “ambassadors” under the plan, which the transit agency said could reduce the cost of the services they provide by more than $8.3 million annually.

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As part of a deal with the MBTA’s largest union, however, current union employees would stay on or transition into other roles, according to Nicholas Easley, the MBTA’s director of flexible contracting, which oversees privatization.

“With private sector support, we could improve customer experience,” said Easley. “It would allow us the ability to manage and hold vendors accountable.”

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Officials plan to discuss the proposal at a meeting Monday of the MBTA’s fiscal and management control board.

The agency wants to begin the process soon by asking companies to submit proposals for how they would carry out the change. Eventually, the MBTA says, it hopes to have more people working with customers in stations than it does now.

The agents can currently be seen throughout the system’s stations, where they help with fare collection, safety, and assisting disabled riders. But officials say the job description is vague, and agents’ responsibilities vary widely across the system.

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The new customer service employees would be trained to do similar duties, but also take on some cleaning, safety, and reporting faulty equipment.

MBTA officials say the new employees would be able to use technology, such as tablets, to give customers better answers and guide them to their destinations. The agency also could request more bilingual workers for certain stations.

The MBTA has 187 customer service agents, 88 of whom took on the job after their former positions were eliminated.

Some are former token collectors whose old jobs were made obsolete when the T stopped using that payment system. Others are former train attendants, who used to ride trains to assist subway operators with announcements and checking on passenger safety.

Ninety-nine other agents are in transitional roles, waiting to move into positions as subway operators.

Under an agreement between their labor group and the MBTA’s management, the former token collectors and train attendants will keep their jobs until they retire or leave the organization, while the others will be given a chance to take on subway operating responsibilities.

The customer service agents cost the MBTA about $19.6 million in salaries, benefits, and overtime, officials said. The agency says those costs rise to $27.2 million when accounting for long-term costs, such as retiree health care and pension values.

The average wage of these employees is about $60,000 to $80,000.

The costs of many of those employees would not disappear, as they would be shifted into driving roles instead or be retrained in the new program.

The MBTA believes, however, that private industry can make customer service more efficient, allowing the agency to hire more workers without paying agents union wages, with pension and retiree benefits.

In all, the MBTA believes it can cut the cost of the customer service agents to about $16.4 million for the current level of service, or to $18.9 million with a 50 percent increase in services.

A spokeswoman for the Boston Carmen’s Union did not immediately return a request for comment.

The MBTA has created a new “customer experience” group to focus on how passengers interact with the system. That could include reevaluating its station and vehicle announcements or changing the roles of its customer service agents.

The MBTA in December hired Margaret Young as its chief customer experience officer. She has worked at IBM, Ogilvy Consulting, and The Cambridge Group.

“It isn’t that the T hasn’t been focused on customers, but all of our customer focus resources have occurred in individual functional departments,” said Young. “There hasn’t been a laser focus in putting them all together.”

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.
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