With only a year in New York City, finding work was more challenging than ever for Jessica Vasquez (a pseudonym) after the pandemic hit New York City. After months without work, this Colombian undocumented immigrant took a job with LN Pro Services as a New York City subway cleaning essential worker for a prevailing wage of $20 an hour. In less than three weeks, however, she would abruptly quit.
“In the beginning, the manager just told me that I had to disinfect the trains, but then they would make us clean up vomit and feces,” she said. “To clean everything up, all they gave us was a towel, cheap gloves, and one face mask. It was really miserable.”
Over the past month, Documented has investigated the conditions that New York’s subway essential subcontracted workers have been subjected to. Four former employees of LN Pro Services, two of which declined to speak on the record, have painted a picture of a work environment so hostile and unsafe that few could endure more than a few weeks. All the subway essential workers Documented spoke to complained that they failed to receive the proper PPE and were not paid wages that were promised to them, among other things. After reviewing the paystubs of four workers employed by LN Pro Services, Documented can confirm that they all were paid less than $20 an hour.
For eight hours a day, Vasquez was made to clean the Jamaica – 179 St subway station in Queens. She alleges that she and her co-workers were barred from taking lunch breaks in the MTA break room and instead had to eat on the platform where rats scurried around her feet. Eventually, she was told that eating on the platform was prohibited too, she said.
When she received her check at the end of the week she noticed she was being paid $18 an hour instead of the promised $20. When she complained to management about her conditions, Vasquez claims that her manager told her that because she was undocumented she was lucky to be employed. Feeling powerless, she would often leave work in tears.
“They were treating me like an animal just because I was undocumented,” she said. “They did not even have a place for us to use the bathroom. It’s unfair for us to be treated like that.”
Vasquez’s experience is not unique. In May, as New York City officials scrambled to contain the virus that was already transforming the City into the epicenter of the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the temporary suspension of 24-hour subway service, between the hours of 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., a first in its 116-year history, to disinfect trains and stations. Instead of assigning the work to MTA employees, the transit agency chose to outsource the job to nearly two-dozen third-party actors such as LN Pro Services. Since March, the MTA has shelled out $371 million to subway contractors. Many of the subway essential workers, like Vasquez, are immigrants with limited English proficiency.
“Since this whole subcontracting thing started, we have had at least 15 subway essential workers come to us to report the really horrible conditions they were experiencing,” said Sara Feldman, Worker Rights Director with New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). “Some were complaining about not getting the right pay but most were about severe mistreatment.”
Astrid Villalba worked for LN Pro Services for 15 days at the same Jamaica station before she too quit. An immigrant from Bogata, Colombia, her situation was similar to Vasquez’s. She and her fellow employees were forced to work in their own clothes except for a yellow safety vest and were only given two rags to wipe down the station with, she said. She also claims that she was given a new mask every other day. At the station, she felt unsafe. Not given a locker or any place to place her bag, it was eventually stolen when she put it down to clean.
“It was a rough 15 days because we had a lot of homeless people we were forced to clean up after and we were treated badly,” she said. “I was only able to handle it because I wanted to document what was going on. Someone has to put an end to this treatment.”
Despite numerous attempts to communicate her grievances to LN Pro Services management, she claims she was continuously lied to by her supervisors and labeled a troublemaker.
“We don’t work as a hobby, we work to make a living but they don’t even want to give us the basic things to keep us safe. The abuse is real. They are taking advantage of our undocumented status.”
Leidy Almonte, owner of LN Pro Services denies any wrongdoing by her or her 5-year-old company. She refuted all the claims made against her or her company, alleging that former employee Villalba was disgruntled after learning that a coworker she had prior disagreements with was promoted to a managerial position. Employing over 100 employees, Almonte also claims none are paid under $20 an hour and she was surprised that anyone would complain about working for her.
“We treat everybody the same, even I go and work with them,” she told Documented. “We try to all work together to solve any issues. Probably the people you talked to, were fired or quit. Some people just want to take it easy and do what they want to do so we have to fix that.”
New York City Comptroller and Mayoral Candidate Scott Stringer told Documented in a statement that his office was determined to advocate on behalf of the subway essential workers. In May, Stringer’s office determined that the subcontract workers generally were not earning the prevailing wage and urged the MTA, in an open letter, to ensure that subway contractors pay prevailing wages.
“These workers are risking their own health to ensure that New Yorkers can use our transit system safely,” he said. “They must be paid fairly, and I encourage any workers who are underpaid to file a complaint with us. I will use the full extent of my office to hold any bad actors accountable and get workers what they are owed.”
Despite the allegations, the MTA continues to deny that any wrongdoing has or continues to occur.
“The MTA is determined to ensure that conditions are healthy and safe for customers and employees alike,” said Shams Tarek, Deputy MTA Communications Director in a statement to Documented. “As we deal with the worst public health crisis in over a century, we are undertaking the biggest daily disinfection operation in public transit history. To do that, we have supplemented our in-house workforce with reputable outside companies that by contract are expected to follow applicable wage and employment laws. Any allegations to the contrary are unfounded.”
Sara Feldman of NICE, views the MTA, the state, and the City’s response as an act of complicity in the exploitation of the workers.
“It’s really unjust that the MTA and the city are using this economic crisis as an excuse to continue to exploit workers. Overall, we are seeing that this pandemic is being used to push undocumented workers underground and make more exploitative work in general.”
Transport Workers Union Local 100, the union that represents MTA workers, has taken notice of the hiring of third-party subway contractors. Long struggling financially, with the pandemic causing ridership and revenue to plummet, the MTA has repeatedly warned services cuts and layoffs are in sight. Early on, the union initially recognized the need for additional help sanitizing the subway system. Bus drivers and train operators, who were on the frontline, lives were in danger; 136 MTA employees have died due to coronavirus complications.
Now, with the city past its March infection peak, the union argues that the MTA’s continued reliance on subcontractors is redundant as well as a breach of its contract.
“There’s no way in hell that Local 100 cleaners get laid off and outside cleaning contractors remain on the property,” said Tony Utano, President of TWU Local 100. “Cleaning subway stations and trains is the exclusive work of Local 100 members, and we have legally binding agreements with the MTA.”
Eventually, Sara Feldman hopes that as a long-term solution, workers will be given a pathway to join the union.
“We want the MTA to pay these workers the prevailing wage and allow these workers to organize into the transit union or at the very least hire union workers to perform this work.”
Still, for workers like Vasquez, any relief may be too little too late. To her, the experience working for LN Pro Services has left her disillusioned with the promise of America.
“I lost all hope for this country and for my present,” she said. “I forgot why I even came to this country.”