AYER — Maria Rodriguez leaves home early because she can’t afford to be late.
Like many janitors who clean biotech labs in Cambridge, Rodriguez works only part-time starting at 5 p.m., when the scientists start heading home.
Her day begins long before, when she walks from her home in Ayer to the commuter rail stop on Main Street and catches the 2:53 p.m. train into Porter Square. She then takes the Red Line to Central Square, where it is a seven-minute walk down Massachusetts Avenue to the campus of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.
There, for four hours, Rodriguez dusts, mops, vacuums, and scrubs toilets, for $21.30 an hour. Her shift ends at 9 p.m., but the next commuter rail train from Porter to Ayer isn’t until 11:05 p.m.
By the time Rodriguez steps off the commuter rail train at midnight, she will have spent more time getting to and from her job than actually working. For six years, she has been making this commute. The 52-year-old is one of a growing number of service workers pushed to live further out of Boston as the price of housing soars, and every time there is a problem with the MBTA, their long commutes get even longer.
These workers must go where the jobs are, and that’s not where they can afford to live.
A Globe photographer and I followed Rodriguez last week to see what it was like to rely on public transit when you live 30-plus miles from Boston and your job cannot be done from home. Indeed, some 160,000 people in Greater Boston spend 90 minutes or more each way to get to work, one of the country’s highest concentrations of so-called super commuters in the United States, according to an analysis of 2019 Census data by Apartment List. That figure has surged in the last decade. Public transit riders are five times more likely to be super commuters compared to those who drive.
Rodriguez’s chief complaint is how much she pays for commuter rail. A monthly pass from Ayer costs $388, slightly more than she earns in a week after taxes. Commuter rail fares climb quickly the farther you get from Boston, meaning the well-heeled riders who get off in Belmont, Lincoln, and Concord pay less than those riding to Ayer, Fitchburg, and Wachusett.
“For the price we are paying, we need better service,” she said.
For hourly workers like Rodriguez, being late is more than just an inconvenience. About three weeks ago, when there was a problem on her commuter rail line, she didn’t get to her lab until 5:30 pm. And so, her pay was reduced by her employer, SBM, one of the various janitorial contractors the big life science companies hire to clean their facilities.
“When the train is broken, we sit here waiting and waiting,” said Rodriguez.
On the day we rode the commuter rail together, there were no issues. Still it felt like a minor miracle when the train pulled into Porter Square on schedule just before 4 p.m. “The ride went well, thank God,” she said.
In recent weeks, as MBTA delays have mounted, other janitors also lost wages because they were late to work. Sometimes part of their shifts were given away to someone else, according to Frank Soults, a spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU, which represents about 20,000 janitors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including about 1,000 who clean labs in Cambridge.
These jobs, held mostly by Latino immigrants, pay about $21 an hour.
“People really do suffer with problems with commuting,” said Soults. “These workers live paycheck to paycheck.”
Rodriguez settled in Ayer because she fell in love with the tranquility of a small New England town. She had previously lived in Chelsea, Somerville, and Waltham, but after her son David was born, she moved to this town of 8,000 between Route 495 and Fitchburg. David is now 17, a rising senior and honor-roll student at Ayer-Shirley Regional High School.
Ayer has been an affordable place to live and raise a family, but here, too, housing prices are rising. Rodriguez’s rent has nearly doubled over time. Today her two-bedroom apartment costs $1,385 a month; still, that’s a bargain compared to places closer in to Boston and Cambridge.
“I like it here,” said Rodriguez as we walk to the commuter rail stop on Main Street. “It’s very nice.”
Rodriguez, who immigrated from El Salvador about two decades ago, worked as an accountant in her native country. She said she would need to go back to school do accounting in the United States. Some day, she wants to do that. She liked having a desk job.
Even as a janitor, Rodriguez would prefer to work full time. But the companies that employ janitors typically only offer part-time work, to save money on benefits. Rodriguez gets paid holidays and eight sick days, but no health insurance. Novartis, in a statement, said custodial services are managed by outside contractors, CBRE and SBM. They determine hours based on the needs of the facility and use a mix of full and part-time custodial staff.
Rodriguez has thought about finding a job closer to Ayer, but it would pay far less than what she makes now. There’s dignity in making more than minimum wage.
“I like to take a good salary,” she said.
Rodriguez depends on the MBTA, unable to drive because of an eye condition. In a pinch, her daughter or partner give her a lift. During the spring of 2020, when not much was known about COVID-19, Rodriguez was too scared to take public transit. Her daughter would drive her 30 miles into the city to work every day.
By May 2020, Rodriguez was back on the commuter rail. Like other janitors who cleaned labs, Rodriguez worked throughout the pandemic and even picked up extra hours. That’s because labs stayed opened as essential businesses and extra disinfection was needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
At first, Rodriguez was concerned about using the MBTA, but when she saw how few riders there were she felt safe. Among the transit lines, ridership on the commuter rail plummeted the most, but it is rebounding as more people return to the office. Still, daily weekday ridership is only about half of what it was before the pandemic, according to MBTA figures.
If the MBTA were a business, executives would be on overdrive figuring out how to lure riders back. They would add service, bolster safety, and ensure reliability. And for a limited period, there would be discounted fares and free parking.
But right now it feels like there’s little sense of urgency that public transit matters. The recent spate of woes — from derailments to reduced service — feel like a system tipping into failure in the waning months of Charlie Baker’s two-term governorship.
And the consequences of that fall hardest on people like Maria Rodriguez, who can least afford the disruption.
When Rodriguez’s shift ends at Novartis, she changes out of her royal blue uniform and waits it out for the next commuter train home. She often hangs out in an employee kitchen, eating rice and beans or pupusas she brought from home. Scientists working late at night will pop by and say hello, while security guards making the rounds let her be.
“They know me,” said Rodriguez.
She aims to leave the building by 10:15 pm, and if the commuter rail is running smoothly, it’s a 55-minute ride home. She rarely falls asleep, but just in case she sets her iPhone alarm for 11:54 pm. She doesn’t want to wake up and find herself in Fitchburg.
The drizzle stopped as Tuesday turned into Wednesday and the commuter rail train pulled into Ayer.
Rodriguez stepped off, as two men boarded onto the Wachusett-bound train. Even though it’s a five-minute walk home, Rodriguez’s 28-year-old daughter, Alejandra, greets her at the station. Sometimes Rodriguez’s son, up late playing video games, drives to pick her up.
At that hour, with the side streets dimly lit, her kids don’t want their mother walking home alone.
“It’s insane,” Alejandra said of her mother’s commute. “I know like a lot of people who do the same travel from here. It’s intense. It’s a long journey.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.