Allison Cooper, a SEPTA operator repositioned to sanitizing buses at Fern Rock Transportation Center, worries she may give COVID-19 to her 90-year-old mom at their Germantown home.
When she gets to her porch after her shift, she has a ritual. She sprays herself with Lysol, and throws her clothes right into the washing machine.
“I can tell you she’s scared to death every time I go out the door,” Cooper said. “She’s like, ‘If I could keep you home, I would keep you home.’”
As Cooper, 54, a TWU Local 234 representative at SEPTA’s Midvale depot, tells it, some drivers ask why they couldn’t wear a face mask on a job deemed essential to getting pharmacists, nurses, grocery stockers, and other vital workers on the job. Why couldn’t they block off bus seats for social distancing?
The union representing thousands of SEPTA employees feels the authority could be doing more, and issued a set of demands Tuesday. SEPTA should be taking workers’ temperatures when they start their shifts, and providing hand sanitizer and gloves, for example.
“We feel as though we’ve been thrown to the wolves,” said TWU Local 234 president Willie Brown. “They’re not taking our safety seriously.”
But SEPTA said Tuesday the safety of riders and employees is its top priority, and pointed to a fact sheet of enhanced cleaning efforts and dramatic service changes made in response to the crisis.
“We do not have a shortage of wipes, of hand sanitizers,” said SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards. “We’ve been distributing gloves for those who need it.”
SEPTA is looking for a source of at least 10,000 cloth masks for bus and trolley operators. Meanwhile, the union has ordered its own shipments of masks and hand sanitizer, Brown said.
‘We’re all in limbo’
Paul Galanaugh, 56, of Mayfair, a SEPTA bus operator, knows the worst is yet to come.
“We’re all going to get this,” he said. “What’s going to happen in the depots when 10 people in a depot test positive? Are they going to shut the service down? We’re all in limbo.”
So far, 22 SEPTA employees have tested positive for coronavirus — employees working in maintenance, its headquarters in Center City, as well as its public-contact jobs.
SEPTA has relaxed rules on sick leave to ensure that employees who are ill or caring for others are better able to take off work, but the union also calls for its members to be tested for fevers with noncontact thermometers when they get to work.
“All of us that’s on the forefront should be tested,” said Chauntann Reid, a union representative and bus operator now charged with sanitation efforts at Olney Transportation Center. “... Because we’re coming back to our homes, to our families, and we could be bringing it back to them as well.”
SEPTA has begun rear-door boarding on buses and trolleys, which means those rides are free. To maintain social distance, it also has imposed limits on the number of riders on buses, trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line.
SEPTA is also only running buses with plastic seats and a protective see-through barrier between the operator and passengers. It’s installing similar shields on trolleys.
In addition, it has repositioned 53 operators like Cooper and 47 operator students to help with enhanced cleaning. Richards said 180 maintenance custodians are working throughout the day to disinfect, sanitize, and power-wash more than 60 subway and trolley stations.
Brown said that SEPTA has made progress on protecting the transportation workers but that more can be done for maintenance employees.
“You cut corners any other time, but this is life or death, not only for us but for the riding public,” he said.
No hope for more pay
Perhaps the biggest sticking point for the union and SEPTA management: Workers are seeking hazard pay.
“We’re picking up human beings who are actually transmitting this virus,” Galanaugh said.
But with unprecedented drops in ridership and revenue, SEPTA said it can’t afford hazard pay. It already has cut executive pay, eliminated overtime, and frozen hiring while it runs on severely reduced service schedules.
Billions have been set aside for public transit in the federal $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, but SEPTA said it’s not clear how much it would receive.
Even so, Richards said, “I can’t see any scenario where we have an extra bucket of money to spread around. I mean, I think it’s going to be really, really difficult and very tight to decide where those precious dollars get spent. Because we are going to be so far behind.”