Dennis and Susan Lafferty of Fox Chase will soon celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
The ceremony last fall was Pennsylvania Railroad-themed, with guests’ names written in white, swirly font on placards that looked like train tickets — an homage to Dennis Lafferty’s late father, who retired after decades in the industry.
Dennis Lafferty, 56, followed in his father’s footsteps and has been a locomotive engineer on SEPTA Regional Rail since the 1990s.
But as they start their life together, he and Susan, 42, worry that Dennis’ longtime employer isn’t putting his safety first during the coronavirus pandemic.
“He and I both feel very passionately that it took us a long time to find each other, and now we’re at a place where we have,” said Susan, a social worker. “And this is happening.”
She said she’s experiencing an “unbearable roller coaster of feelings” knowing that more than 250 SEPTA employees have tested positive for coronavirus, including about 50 engineers, conductors, and assistant conductors. Michael Hill and Steve McFadden, both Regional Rail conductors, are among seven SEPTA employees who have died from COVID-19 complications.
“You can’t work under these conditions the way they are right now,” Dennis said. “It’s nerve-racking.”
Dennis fears catching COVID-19 and infecting his 82-year-old mother, even though he wears the N95 mask a neighbor gave him and a cloth mask his wife made for him.
The Laffertys aren’t the only ones frustrated and afraid. The spouses of other conductors and engineers don’t want them going to work, either, Dennis said.
Concerned about asymptomatic spread, they want SEPTA to do more to protect workers, such as checking temperatures and testing employees, similar to what NJ Transit is doing. Susan has emailed SEPTA management to call for greater safety measures and hazard pay.
Philadelphia officials now recommend that anyone with symptoms or who has been exposed to a cluster of cases, such as in a nursing home, be tested for the coronavirus.
Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents thousands of employees including bus operators, nearly halted SEPTA’s transit service last month while demanding safeguards. Brown backed off a possible job action after he said SEPTA made progress, including on temperature screening and a way to test employees.
SEPTA said in a statement that such a program would extend to all its workers, not just TWU Local 234 members, but it is “still working on developing details."
“It has been something that we’ve been working toward," Scott Sauer, SEPTA assistant general manager of operations, said of temperature checks. "We’re not there yet, but hopefully very soon we’ll be able to start the screening.”
Sauer couldn’t give a more specific timeline for systemwide screening. SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said the authority was talking with medical experts on testing employees but notes that tests aren’t available in the volume needed.
“Our hands are tied until the industry can provide those tools for us," she said.
Union leaders for Regional Rail employees also have raised concerns. Though very few people are riding trains, crews frequently touch plastic and stainless steel surfaces, such as keys and grab handles, where the coronavirus could exist.
They, too, have heard a concern the Laffertys expressed to The Inquirer: that homeless people with no way to practice social distancing, including those who have sought shelter at Philadelphia International Airport’s Terminal A-East, are riding Regional Rail.
“If they’re not going to protect their workers, then they have to do better," Susan Lafferty said. “They have to find a way to manage that homeless population better if they’re not going to give the workers what they need to stay healthy and safe themselves.”
Richards said she is aware of the situation. “Obviously, this is a much larger sheltering and housing issue as well as a public-health issue, and so we are working with all the entities together," she said.
To protect Regional Rail employees, SEPTA is deep-cleaning crew locations, conducting contact tracing, providing protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer to staff, and enforcing social distancing aboard trains and in work spaces, according to the authority.
Donald Hill, general chairman of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents more than 200 locomotive engineers, advocated for a new vehicle-cleaning procedure implemented last month at Suburban Station that he believes helped to stabilize the number of employee cases.
Hill said he and Bernard Norwood, head of the SEPTA conductors union, have pressured SEPTA to start temperature checks and offer personal bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes since March. Progress has been glacial, they both said.
“I have made it clear to the company that they needed to do more than what they were doing,” Hill said.
Both believe that face masks should be required while riding public transportation — the case in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and, starting Monday, on Amtrak. SEPTA reversed a short-lived requirement after a viral video showed a man dragged off a bus by police officers, allegedly for not wearing a facial covering. The authority urges riders to wear masks.
“We’re doing exactly what the others are doing,” Richards said. “I understand the words people are getting hung up on, but yes, we are strongly encouraging just like New Jersey and New York is doing.”
For now, Dennis and Susan Lafferty, who were both single parents, wait and plan for the future.
Maybe they’ll finally take that honeymoon they never got around to. Maybe, they’ll watch their children — ages 16, 28, and 26 — raise their own families.
They think about a nice little house out in the countryside, somewhere Dennis can do his yard work and Susan her sewing and cooking.
“And," he said, “a big enough yard to hit some golf balls.”