The people who clean the subways might be New York City's unsung heroes. They work at all hours, power-washing urine from platforms, putting themselves in harm's way to clean tracks and mopping the train car floors and seats that millions of people use every day.
Still, workers were disconcerted by the news that Craig Spencer, the doctor who tested positive for Ebola in New York City on Thursday, rode the A, L and 1 subway lines the day before he was diagnosed. After all, they’re the ones who have to clean the trains on which Spencer travelled.
"It's a time for caution, a high level of caution," said John Samuelsen, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 100, which represents Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers.
Samuelson told The Huffington Post that the biggest concern for transit workers right now is making sure they have the right protective gear for cleaning up hazardous waste. The union is advising workers to do their jobs and be professional, but to challenge any supervisor who tells them to deal with infectious waste without protective equipment.
The risk of any transit worker contracting Ebola is relatively low. The disease is not airborne, and it’s only spread through bodily fluids. For someone to catch it, they would have to actually come in contact with something like mucus or vomit from an infected person.
Bodily fluids weren’t reported on any of the subway lines Spencer rode on Wednesday, according to the MTA.
That said, uncomfortable cleanups are all too common on New York City's busy subway system.
"This is nothing new for transit workers," Samuelsen said.
Indeed, whoever ends up cleaning the subway will be well-prepared. Transit workers are trained regularly on how to deal with emergencies. Moreover, the MTA already has procedures in place for cleaning up infectious waste in the transit system, including isolating the bus, train car or subway where the waste is found and providing protective equipment and training to the people cleaning it up. The MTA has added extra levels of protection for workers cleaning the places where Spencer came in contact with the system.
“Based on advice from health experts, the MTA has updated the protocols to ensure employees are issued nitrile gloves, use a 10 percent bleach solution for disinfection, and double-bag any potentially infectious waste,” according to a statement from the agency.
In addition, the TWU Local 100 union released a statement Thursday saying that its director of occupational health, Dr. Frank Goldsmith, is “closely monitoring the situation."
The people who keep the subway humming work under a variety of strange conditions that would be foreign to most New Yorkers, according to Robert W. Snyder, the author of Transit Talk: New York Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories. Their hours can be erratic. They’re in contact with many more people every day than most of us are. Some of their jobs are “industrial” and can involve dangerous conditions. Amid all of this, these workers are also expected to maintain a happy face for customers, Snyder told HuffPost.
Transit workers are "often seen as invisible unless something goes catastrophically wrong,” said Snyder, who is also a professor at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.
That dynamic was on display earlier this month, when passengers wrote in anger to various news outlets about a used condom that had been hanging from a handrail on the F line for weeks. An MTA spokesman told Gothamist that he wasn’t necessarily surprised workers had missed the condom, which was relatively high up, because they’re so focused on cleaning the floors and seats of the train.
Despite the stressful conditions of transit work, people still flock to the job because “it remains one of the few jobs in the city where an ordinary person with an ordinary education can build a decent life with decent pay,” Snyder said.
Transit workers who clean the subway make about $25 an hour, according to data provided by the union. MTA workers also get dental and medical benefits, as well as perks like two weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave.
That may be part of the reason that, so far, transit workers and organizers haven’t used the Ebola panic to highlight the difficulties of the work. By contrast, earlier this month, airplane cleaners and other LaGuardia airport workers addressed Ebola in a strike that was organized with the help of the Service Employee International Union.
Though the LaGuardia protest dealt with working conditions more broadly, the Ebola outbreak offered a good opportunity to highlight those conditions, since the workers cleaning airplane cabins regularly come into contact with passengers’ bodily fluids.
Samuelsen added that his organization was in constant communication with workers and the MTA to ensure employees are working safely.
"We're not going to put ourselves in harm's way," he said.