In March 2020, as the statewide pandemic lockdown crushed SEPTA’s finances, SEPTA announced a series of “difficult short-term measures” to save money, including eliminating overtime and cutting executives’ pay by 10%.
The pay cut was a cost-saving move that reached the highest levels of SEPTA leadership, including general manager Leslie S. Richards. Even more, it was a signal of shared sacrifice.
A few weeks later, the transit authority announced it would cut executives’ pay by an additional 5% and also cut the pay of nearly 700 managers and administrators. In total, the cuts were projected to save $1.76 million, SEPTA said at the time. It has been losing $1 million a day.
“Together, we’ll get through this,” Richards wrote to staffers, echoing SEPTA’s #InItTogether pandemic social media campaign.
But some of those cuts never happened.
A few weeks later, SEPTA decided against making the additional executive pay cut. And two of the 10 officials on SEPTA’s executive team did not take the full 10% pay cut, which lasted 10 weeks.
Kim Scott Heinle, SEPTA’s assistant general manager of customer service and advocacy, took the cut for only two weeks, while Ron Hopkins, SEPTA’s former assistant general manager of operations, did not take the cut at all.
After telling the media about it, SEPTA also quietly decided against cutting the pay of nearly 700 managers and administrators. Richards later acknowledged the change when asked by The Inquirer.
The pay cuts were “a PR stunt,” said Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents 5,500 SEPTA workers.
Rolling back the cuts for management and some in the executive team while rank-and-file workers were making bigger sacrifices in the pandemic, he said, didn’t sit well with many workers. Especially when bus drivers and other workers lost out on overtime while risking their lives to do their jobs. At least 1,360 transit workers had contracted COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Ten have died.
SEPTA, Brown said, was also inflexible when people needed to call out sick, or to have time off to care for an ill family member, or child care fell through at the last minute. The union also accused the authority of not doing enough to protect them from the virus on the job; SEPTA rejected its request for hazardous duty pay.
The transit agency remains in dire financial shape. Federal relief of about $1.5 billion from three stimulus bills has kept SEPTA afloat, and its current proposed budget anticipates stretching some of the money into 2024. It won’t last forever, though, and officials don’t know when — or whether — ridership will fully recover.
Leaders of the authority are keen to demonstrate they are prudent stewards of the money they have, particularly heading into a period where SEPTA needs a new state funding formula to replace one expiring next year. Money for public transit is often a tough sell in a legislature dominated by rural interests.
Other workers have taken financial hits. Some Regional Rail engineers lost 50% of what they make in a typical year during the pandemic because of cuts in overtime, said Roger Eldridge, legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Division 71. He’s down 33%.
SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said neither Heinle nor SEPTA’s finance staff knew why Heinle did not receive the full 10-week pay cut, as Heinle had not requested an exemption.
“Our best guess at this point was that was some sort of payroll glitch,” Busch said, adding that “Kim’s understanding at the time was that he was receiving the same reduction as other members of the [executive] team.”
Regarding Hopkins, who did not take the pay cut at all, Busch said Hopkins had set an August 2020 date for his retirement before COVID. Busch declined to elaborate further.
Hopkins, a 31-year SEPTA veteran, did not return phone calls or a letter left at the address listed for him on public records.
The 10% cut would not have affected his pension, Busch said, as SEPTA’s pensions are based on employees’ salaries for the final three years of their tenure — not earnings.
Both Heinle and Hopkins made roughly $201,000 in fiscal year 2020, according to SEPTA data.
SEPTA decided not to make the additional pay cuts — the cut to the nearly 700 managers and administrators and the extra 5% executive pay cut — because it realized that “short-term reductions in pay weren’t going to significantly help us in the long-term,” Busch said.
At that time, about a month after the pandemic began, things were changing quickly and there were a lot of unknowns, Busch said. After announcing the pay cut for managers and administrators, he said, SEPTA further reviewed the decision and saw that it would result in some junior-level managers making less than those they supervised — union workers who would not receive the pay cut.
The most junior managers who would have been affected by the cuts make between $60,000 and $75,000, while those on the highest end make more than $100,000.
SEPTA board chairman Pasquale Deon declined to comment for this story.
The transit agency eliminated some worker overtime in response to a lack of ridership, Busch said, and for a two-month period after the pandemic began, it paid bus operators for 40 hours a week even if they worked 32 hours.
Still, Brown said some of his members effectively had their pay cut for months — much longer than the 10-week cut most executives got. Some bus operators lost an average of 15 hours a week in guaranteed overtime until earlier this year because of cutbacks in bus runs due to the drop in ridership.
“The members, when you start talking about money, their position is they don’t think that … during this pandemic SEPTA tried to look out for them at all,” Brown said. “They feel shortchanged.”
Staff writers Patricia Madej and Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.