Everybody loved Yolanda Woodberry’s seafood salad.
Well, they loved anything she made, really, but especially her seafood salad, recalled David Woodberry, her husband of more than two decades. She was a perfectionist in the kitchen, he said, one of those cooks who wouldn’t let anyone touch what she’d made before the dishes hit the table. Everything had to look flawless.
The best cook is just one of the many superlatives he uses to describe Yolanda, a strong and religious woman with a bubbly smile. Yolanda, one of nine SEPTA workers to die from COVID-19 as the pandemic rages on, was David’s soul mate — the ying to his yang, the “glue that kept everything and everybody together,” he said, including their combined family of nine children.
For David, “there is no Thanksgiving,” as there will be no Christmas without Yolanda. He’s frustrated over what he and his lawyer, Charles Leone, describe as a lack of sympathy and communication from SEPTA. Her death in late April could have been prevented, and they wonder why no one from the transit agency has mentioned the donation-fueled fund intended to help families of workers who have died or been severely impacted by COVID-19.
“I went through depression,” David said in the couple’s rented Northeast Philadelphia home, surrounded by photos of family members. “From grieving, to being lonely, to depression, thinking I’m getting better, to going back into depression with this. I have to try to keep up a strong front for [15-year-old daughter, Tamyra] and all of the other kids and grandkids. Without my rib, my right hand beside me, it’s just tough.”
This time of year stings for David, a 58-year-old security supervisor, just as it surely does for the families of more than 250,000 Americans to die of COVID-19, forced to move forward and silently mourn as case numbers surge ahead of a long winter.
“We put a lot of pressure on our essential workers during this time,” Leone said. “I don’t know that the public knows the extent that they actually had to go through.”
SEPTA employees have been heralded as essential workers carrying other essential workers to the front lines where they stock grocery store shelves and staff doctor’s offices. Yolanda, 53, a bus operator out of SEPTA’s Frankford Depot, worked for the authority for 17 years.
Leone is investigating the full extent of SEPTA’s role in Yolanda’s death. David contends she contracted COVID-19 at work, reporting for duty as the authority scrambled to establish safety measures. Yolanda would complain of crowded buses and passengers who ventured too close, David said. The couple cobbled together their own PPE, he said.
SEPTA beefed up cleaning efforts in March, and began to find and distribute protective supplies, like masks, to workers. While strongly encouraged throughout the pandemic, facial coverings became required aboard SEPTA in June.
Rear-door boarding, free fares to limit passengers’ interactions with bus and trolley drivers, as well as rider limits were put into place April 1. By then, SEPTA also said it was only running buses with protective see-through barriers to separate operators and riders, and was in the process of installing something similar on trolleys.
After a quick hospitalization, Yolanda died April 24. It was the “worst week” of David’s life.
“They called me, telling me, ‘We going to allow you 15 minutes,’” David said, fighting through tears. “Fifteen minutes for somebody I’ve been with for 36 years. … Words just can’t explain what this woman meant to me, and her family.”
More than 570 SEPTA employees have had COVID-19, while nearly 350 have returned to work. The authority has lost nine employees to coronavirus-related complications, ranging from bus operators, to Regional Rail conductors, mechanics, and most recently, a transit police officer. Aside from Yolanda, they are: Dwayne Morrison, Mbassa Bessike, Ted Nixon, Phil Williams, Michael Holt, Michael Hill, Steve McFadden, and Terrance Burton.
SEPTA workers have not received hazard pay or a COVID-19-related death benefit, like the $500,000 payout New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority offers families of transit workers. In addition to a half-pension made available when a spouse reaches age 65, SEPTA extends a $40,000 death benefit to all families, as part of its existing contract with TWU.
David said he expected more humanity from higher ups at SEPTA. Agency spokesperson Andrew Busch said SEPTA writes to families about the workers’ pension, and also does regular check-ins, “from just, ‘How are you doing? Is there anything we can do to help?’ to more kind of technical things.”
SEPTA General Manger Leslie S. Richards spoke with one of Yolanda’s family members after her death, Busch said.
The authority partnered with the Philadelphia Foundation and the Delaware Valley Regional Economic Development Fund to launch a COVID-19 Memorial Fund in late July, so far raising $26,000. A dozen SEPTA employees will advise on future distribution.
“We’re still in kind of the first steps of this,” Busch said. “Certainly, we would look forward to a time when we’re transitioning maybe from trying to get employees to contribute, trying to get anybody who sees it to contribute, to going to the families and saying, ‘Hey, here’s something that is available for you.’ Absolutely, there’s an intention to do that, but we don’t want it to be hollow.”
TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown doesn’t support the fund, criticizing it as a kind of “handout.” Instead of asking for donations, SEPTA “should do the right thing,” he said, and “give these families money.”
“This thing, it’s real to us. You’re talking to people who are carrying around that guilt, ‘My mother’s taking care of me and I gave her [COVID],” he said. “The one young lady said to me, ‘I killed my mother.’ And we said, ‘No you didn’t.’ These are real people. It’s not a number to us.”
Meanwhile, David is struggling to maintain.
“Some weeks, I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said. ”She was the breadwinner of the family and without her right now, I’m living on my faith in God.”