SEPTA union claims win in virus dispute

Melissa Mitman

A union representing thousands of SEPTA workers is claiming victory in its fight with the transit agency to get increased protections for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Threats of a work stoppage, or other “job action,” appear to be off-the-table, at least for now, though Transport Workers Union Local 234 didn’t get all of its demands fulfilled.

SEPTA agreed to explore ways to acquire coronavirus testing kits that use saliva instead of swabs and is working on a way to check workers for fevers as they arrive, according to a Local 234 newsletter sent to members Tuesday.

Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman, confirmed the informal agreement. The sides discussed the issue after Mayor Jim Kenney asked Local 234 to postpone a planned job action last Thursday and continue negotiating.

“We’re going to keep talking to the union leadership throughout this, make sure we have an open dialogue with them,” Busch told Metro. “All indications that we have at this time are that there’s not going to be a job action.”

In addition, the transit agency on Sunday altered its “Lifeline Service Schedule” to reduce times between buses and prevent overcrowding. SEPTA has already been limiting the number of bus and trolley passengers to 20.

Public transportation workers have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. So far, 221 members of SEPTA’s workforce have contracted the virus, and five have died.

The latest casualty was a 17-year SEPTA employee who worked as a bus driver in Frankford, according to Busch.

SEPTA has procured 600,000 surgical masks and 10,000 washable neck gaiters in an attempt to better protect its workers from the infection. The agency continues to pursue additional purchases.

“We definitely have enough masks to give out to all employees and change them out, not necessarily every day, but change them out as needed,” Busch said.

N95 masks, which provide more protection against the virus, have been given to SEPTA Transit Police officers, he said.

SEPTA, in the deal with the union, agreed to make it easier for employees, especially those with underlying conditions, to receive sick leave even if they don’t have symptoms. Workers will not receive disciplinary attendance points for calling out.

“We want to continue to do all we can to protect the health and safety of their members,” Busch said, referring to Local 234. “That’s our focus with everything we’re doing now.”

Local 234 has been pushing for a four-day work week for maintenance employees, though SEPTA has said such a schedule isn’t possible. Instead, the agency is providing compensatory time to those workers.

Bus drivers, due to severe service reductions, have been placed on a four-day schedule.

As for taking employees’ temperatures and expanding COVID-19 testing, it will take a bit of time to get the supplies and equipment necessary to set up a system, Busch said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has required most essential businesses to check workers for a fever daily, though SEPTA has been told it is not in violation of his order.

For more information on the updated bus schedules, visit www.septa.org/covid-19.

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