Transport Workers Union Local 234 is considering legal action against SEPTA over a quarantine policy that it says incentivizes workers to report to their shifts when they may be sick or have been exposed to COVID-19, the group announced Tuesday.
SEPTA gives workers paid leave to cover up to four work weeks of quarantine — enough for two of the standard 14-day stretches that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for monitoring symptoms and reducing the spread of COVID-19. But should workers need to quarantine for a third stretch, they would have to apply for sick pay, at half their wages.
TWU Local 234 says that situation becomes more likely as cases spike. The union represents thousands of SEPTA workers, including drivers and cashiers.
“Now what happens is, if you have someone who might have been in contact with someone, they don’t want to lose money,” TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown said. “They may not feel well; they’re still coming to work.”
“If we’re doing our part in society, we should be encouraging people — if you don’t feel well, don’t come in,” he said.
A legal battle is “the last thing” SEPTA wants, said Fran Kelly, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for public and government affairs.
“We take very seriously that we’re all in this together,” he said. “We see them as a SEPTA family.”
Federal funding has allowed SEPTA to offer up to 160 hours of fully paid leave time, whether a worker is exposed to COVID-19 or has contracted the virus, said Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations. Fewer than 100 employees have taken all 160 hours, he said. The CDC has recently said that some 14-day quarantines could be shortened to 10 or 7 days.
More than 840 SEPTA employees have had COVID-19, and about 450 have now returned to work. Nine SEPTA employees have died of COVID-19 complications: Yolanda Woodberry, Dwayne Morrison, Mbassa Bessike, Ted Nixon, Phil Williams, Michael Holt, Michael Hill, Steve McFadden, and Terrance Burton.
The authority is losing about $1 million a day because of decreased ridership and is considering service cuts, layoffs, and fare hikes.
TWU Local 234 detailed its concerns about the quarantine policy and other COVID-19 related matters in a letter to SEPTA’s board last week, accusing the authority of growing lax with COVID-19 mitigation efforts that had been previously put into place.
The letter outlined measures “that must be reinstated and/or implemented immediately to prevent a public health catastrophe,” including extended health coverage, issues surrounding COVID-19 child-care leave, and staggered work breaks.
The letter, dated Dec. 17, also said, “SEPTA must pull out all stops to ensure that its front-line employees receive the [COVID-19] vaccines as soon as possible.”
Sauer said the authority is working with city and state officials to get workers “near the head of the line” for vaccinations.
Brown had threatened a TWU Local 234 “job action” in April that would have disrupted SEPTA service over demands to safeguard workers, but the union held off. The authority later announced a partnership with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to test workers at stations. A mask requirement for riders and workers alike has been in place since June.