SEPTA workers tasked with cleaning the transit agency’s vehicles must take extra precautions with the gobs of spit often found on subway car floors since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Sweeping over them could smear and potentially disperse viral particles, said Shawn Robertson, 59, a SEPTA cleaner. She used to use a simple household cleaner on spit and sticky spots on train cars. Now she sprays with an ammonia-based window cleaner before sweeping up. She doesn’t want to risk leaving any viral residue, and it’s the only way to be sure.

Robertson’s job is “a little more depressing than usual,” she said. “Any job that you go into in the transportation industry, there’s an uncertainty all the time just because of the dangers that are always there. Corona’s just one more thing.”

More than 500 workers mop, sop, sweep, and disinfect stations and vehicles each day. It’s a dirty job in the best of times, and those who do it for SEPTA typically stay no more than five years, said one union executive, before moving on to less gritty work within the transit authority. With the coronavirus, though, the job has taken on new importance, especially as SEPTA returns to more normal schedules.

John Mathis, a SEPTA employee, disinfects the turnstiles at the 15th Street station on the Broad Street Line. The cleaning is happening frequently as part of COVID-19 response.
Heather Khalifa / File Photograph
John Mathis, a SEPTA employee, disinfects the turnstiles at the 15th Street station on the Broad Street Line. The cleaning is happening frequently as part of COVID-19 response.

Buses, trains and trolleys get a thorough, deep cleaning every 10 days, up from every 30 days before the pandemic, said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. Vehicles are also sanitized at least twice a day.

“The enhancements implemented for COVID will continue to be a part of our normal cleaning procedures for the future,” Busch said. “We are in the process of purchasing some of the latest supplies and equipment to help maintain the increased level of cleanliness now recommended and required.”

The agency also exempts workers involved in cleaning duties from a system-wide overtime freeze, and provides them with gloves, masks, eye protection, Tyvek suits, and footwear protectors.

Workers describe the job as a nausea-inducing slog that leaves them by turns disgusted and worried about their own health. Fifteen cleaners have fallen ill with COVID-19. Compounding the problem is a lack of police presence, they said, that has promoted a sense of lawlessness at stations.

”I’m constantly cleaning up drug vials, urine, human feces, trash everywhere,” said Darryl Gardner, 49, who cleans the Broad Street Line’s Cecil B. Moore station. “If you’re trying to clean and you’re in their area, the homeless people don’t really want you in that area.”

A problem of displacement

Philadelphia’s transit stations, legally defined as public spaces, have long struggled with how to manage homeless populations using them for shelter, but the virus has exacerbated the problem. It’s the biggest challenge for cleaners, according to interviews with eight workers and two union officials.

“What the train stations provide is somewhat of a safer area, because there’s security and people going through there frequently,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, which provides services for people without housing.

Libraries, fast-food restaurants, and retailers — all places where the city’s homeless people could reliably shelter and use a bathroom — have closed, she said. Shelters are feared as a place where someone could be exposed to the virus. In more recent weeks, protests have left public spaces like the Municipal Services Building’s Thomas Paine Plaza and Dilworth Park outside City Hall inaccessible.

SEPTA workers, though, said more could be done to prevent people from defecating and urinating in stations. Needles are often scattered on the floor.

SEPTA officials said they were working with the city to find additional sheltering spaces. SEPTA had planned to assign social workers to team up with transit police in April to interact with homeless people at stations, but that initiative is on hold due to the pandemic. Hiring social workers was a response to a 2019 incident in which transit officers seriously injured a homeless woman in an effort to clear people out of Suburban Station.

A bullet hit a storefront May 17, narrowly missing SEPTA employee Jerand Kennedy as he prepared to deep clean Olney Transportation Center.
Courtesy of Jerand Kennedy
A bullet hit a storefront May 17, narrowly missing SEPTA employee Jerand Kennedy as he prepared to deep clean Olney Transportation Center.

On May 17, Jerand Kennedy, working with an overnight wash-down crew, was about to begin deep cleaning at the Olney Transportation Center about 11 p.m. when shots rang out.

“The bullet came straight by me,” said Kennedy, 53. “That’s how close it was.”

A passing vehicle was also struck. Police arrested a 31-year-old man in the shooting and charged him with aggravated-assault-related offenses.

SEPTA does not have enough transit officers to assign one to each station, Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said, adding that it “would not be an efficient or effective way to do policing.” Nestel also said he was wary of using law enforcement to address homelessness, which is not a criminal offense, and would prefer that social workers interact with people without housing or those suffering from substance abuse.

”We are encouraged by reforms that are moving in that direction,” Nestel said in a statement, adding that a mental health specialist is partnered with transit police.

A daily panic attack

Mike Bush, a SEPTA station cleaner, prepares to mop the floor at the Allegheny Station on the Broad Street Line.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Mike Bush, a SEPTA station cleaner, prepares to mop the floor at the Allegheny Station on the Broad Street Line.

SEPTA’s cleaners knew what they were signing up for, workers said, but the coronavirus has introduced a new level of anxiety and frustration.

“Going to work in the morning and leaving work at the end of the day are probably the two hardest parts of the day,” said Mike Bush, 38, who cleans Broad Street Line stations. “There was a point throughout this where you’re driving to work having a panic attack.”

Angela Blake was scheduled to be promoted in March from a cleaner at the 60th and Market station to a trolley operator, but because of the pandemic, SEPTA told her she was needed in the cleaning job indefinitely.

Since then, she said, she has hated coming to work. The youngest of her three children, son Antodd, suffers from asthma, and she constantly fears bringing the virus home to him.

Quitting isn’t an option. “I’ve got a family to feed,” she said.

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She hopes for a reprieve soon. Her supervisors have told her she should be able to transfer to trolley work in July.

Workers worry that the cleaning solutions they’re using aren’t strong enough. The agency uses Environmental Protection Agency-approved virucides for cleaning and disinfecting, according to the authority, and has boosted frequency throughout the pandemic.

Others workers expressed concern about depleted staffing.

Between worker infections and disruptions caused by the statewide shutdown, SEPTA has experienced staffing shortages like many other businesses, said Busch, the SEPTA spokesperson, so the agency has reassigned workers from other departments to fill gaps.

SEPTA has had more than 290 confirmed employee coronavirus cases, and more than 180 have returned to work. Seven employees have died of coronavirus complications.

Inevitable reopening

Angela Blake, who cleans the 60th and Market subway station in Philadelphia, had expected to become a trolley driver in March.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Angela Blake, who cleans the 60th and Market subway station in Philadelphia, had expected to become a trolley driver in March.

SEPTA restored much of its transit service in May, and with some Regional Rail service returning later this month, the agency is eager to show riders that public transit is clean and safe. Rider limits are in place, and face masks required, but avoiding others during rush hour commutes may be impossible. While regular cleaning is important, social distancing is expected to be a bigger concern.

Robertson, the vehicle cleaner, is exhausted by the seemingly endless task of cleaning coffee stains and throwing out gnawed chicken bones, but holds to a sense of purpose.

“We take care to make sure we’d want to sit down on that train,” she said.

The annual base salary without overtime for cleaning jobs is $62,150. Yet the stress of working conditions during the pandemic is likely to lead to an exodus from those positions, said Brian Pollitt, vice president for Transport Workers Union Local 234. Many custodial workers have enough seniority to force transfers to other jobs at SEPTA.

“After the COVID issue, those guys are fed up,” Pollitt said. “The moment that things get back to normal, they’re out of there.”

As the pandemic worsened, Bush, the Broad Street Line cleaner, avoided kissing or hugging his wife, who he said is immunocompromised, and his three children. But he reports to work, knowing the responsibility it carries.

“This isn’t a job that really commands a lot of respect from the general public to begin with,” Bush said. “But I want to point out that despite the gripes, this is something that we’re all really proud of.”