New York City subway token booth clerks agents to shift to customer service

Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

NEW YORK — It’s the end of an underground era: The city’s venerable subway station agents are leaving their token booths.

A new plan rolled out Thursday created expanded roles for the longtime subway workers as the decades-old subway system staple is phased out, with employees now expected to spend much of their shifts outside the booth providing customer service and a variety of other duties.

“The expectation is the majority of their time will now be spent ... helping customers, giving directions, being out on the platform,” said NYC Transit President Richard Davey said inside the Fulton St. station in Manhattan. “Making sure that our customers are being served in real-time.”

Their job status across the system’s 472 stations appeared threatened by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s embrace of the digital Omni fare-payment system, where riders can instantly purchase trips with credit cards, debit cards and smartphones.

But the deal with the Transit Workers Union Local 100 created a new niche, with the workers now interacting with strangers from beyond their usual perch inside the plexiglass booths.

“They’ll be expected, for example, to be walking the entire station at least a couple of times during their tour,” said Davey. “Our agents will have cell phones, all of them, so if they witness, see an issue that needs to be addressed by management or law enforcement, they’ll have the ability to do that.”

He added there was no plan to remove the iconic token booths, noting they are a city fixture and will be still used by the workers.

“There will be times, certainly, agents are in the booths for legitimate purposes and reasons for sure,” said Davey.

Brooklyn-based Station Agent Yamina Smith, 42, was looking forward to her new perspective on the subways.

“I like dealing with people, and being behind the booth, it kind of makes you feel a little restricted,” she said. “It makes it feel not personal, so being outside will be better. It will definitely be much better.”

For union Stations Vice President Robert Kelley, this was about creating a new niche for 2,000 workers facing an uncertain future.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Kelly. “This is about protecting the employment of station agents so they can continue to take care of their families ... We are forging a new path with a new role that makes their presence in the system even more vital.”

Appropriately-named station agent Dwane Booth, a 19-year-veteran, said time and technology wait for no one, and he was okay with the change.

“We have to go forward,” he said. “Everything is always a move and progression forward ... Can’t really complain, just gotta adjust and move forward.”

He brushed aside questions about his new responsibilities and fears about his safety.

“I’m not scared of nothing,” he said. “I’m a New Yorker.”