Opinion

Opinion | Marcela García

Why does the T have to squeeze a vulnerable workforce?

Members of the MBTA Union 32/ Boston Janitors Service Employees International Union protested outside the State House on Aug. 28.
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/File
Members of the MBTA Union 32/ Boston Janitors Service Employees International Union protested outside the State House on Aug. 28.

As the MBTA looks to reduce its operating deficit, it has found a new and unsettling target: the largely below-ground workforce of contract janitors. They’re the least-paid and most vulnerable people associated with the public transportation system. Feces, urine, vomit, and used needles are constant occupational hazards. More than 120 janitors have been affected by cuts, out of a total staff of about 300. They include at least 50 janitors who have been laid off, according to union officials, while the rest have seen their hours reduced, with some losing their health insurance coverage.

A T that’s dirtier is not pleasant to contemplate and does not align with anybody’s idea of a world-class transportation system. But what’s particularly wrongheaded about the move is the callous downgrading of dozens of workers’ lives. At a time when the public is thinking more and more about ensuring that people make a living wage, why are we letting our public transportation system, largely supported by taxpayers, pull the rug from under a group of people who do this unappreciated but extremely important work? The savings are coming on the backs of janitors who make $18 per hour. Contrast that with the 59 T employees who earned over $100,000 in overtime alone last year, according to a Springfield Republican/MassLive.com report.

The T says the savings for the move will add up to $8.1 million over two years — in the context of an annual budget of over $2 billion. The cuts come after the MBTA found it had been overpaying the two contracting companies, S.J. Services and ABM, by nearly 50 percent.

To most people, the reductions may seem like an abstract management exercise, but they are of course very real to the those affected.

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Jorge Rivera, 47, has been cleaning T stations for 11 years. But his hours were cut from 35 to 25 per week.

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“I’m very nervous about my condo,’’ he said in an interview. “I pay my mortgage based on the salary I was making. I could potentially lose my home, and that would be the worst thing that could happen to me.”

Rivera, who works for S.J. Services, also lost his health insurance. The workload — two stations on the Orange line — is the same, he said, even though he needs to complete the job in a shorter shift.

For the first two weeks of September, Juana Majalde Miranda, a 27-year-old Everett resident who’s pregnant with her third child, had to clean an extra floor because the janitor in charge of that area was reassigned to another location. Not only that, but Majalde Miranda was supposed to do it in less time.

“I went from 29 to 20 hours,” Majalde Miranda said. “Suddenly I had double the work — double the area to mop, dust, vacuum — and I needed to do it faster. I am seven months pregnant. I was exhausted and afraid of losing my baby. The other worker was also doing her floor in 29 hours a week, and now I was supposed to do both in 20 hours?” She is also subcontracted through S.J. Services and doesn’t have any benefits.

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Luckily for her, 32BJ SEIU, the union representing the workers, intervened and the situation was rectified. But for those two weeks she was stressed and afraid she could lose her job if she complained.

“The hardest part about cleaning has nothing to do with cleaning,” she said.

Union officials are struggling to make sense of the math that the T administrators say justifies the firing of janitors. Roxana Rivera, vice president at 32BJ SEIU, fears “the MBTA has grossly exaggerated the amount of cost overruns that are attributable to pay for janitors.” The union recently filed complaints against the two subcontractors with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing unfair labor practices. At the least, the T should be more transparent and release detailed information related to the decision to drastically cut its cleaning staff.

The T is trying to unravel a fiscal mess wrought by years of mismanagement. But it doesn’t need to become a physical mess in the meantime by squeezing its poorest laborers, a mostly invisible immigrant workforce.

Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.