SEPTA warns of possible work stoppage Thursday

Melissa Mitman

Update (8:30 p.m.): SEPTA has heard that TWU Local 234 will not call for a work stoppage on Thursday, a spokesman said in an email. It’s expected all modes will run on the “Lifeline Service Schedule.” 

SEPTA is warning riders to expect no bus service and possibly other disruptions Thursday due to a potential work stoppage initiated by union leaders worried about workers being exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Willie Brown, president of Transportation Workers Union Local 234, which represents thousands of SEPTA employees, has threatened to take a “job action” if the agency doesn’t meet a list of demands surrounding safety.

It’s unclear what Local 234 has in mind, though a job action could include a work slowdown, protest or even a walkout, which would be illegal under SEPTA’s labor contract.

Union representatives have not returned requests for comment.

SEPTA leadership is not sure what to expect Thursday, either, but said there could be “significant service disruptions.”

“At this time, SEPTA is not clear on the details of this potential work stoppage, however, at minimum, it would likely force the suspension of bus service within the City of Philadelphia,” the agency said in a statement.

“SEPTA is looking at all possible options for maintaining some core services, such as limited operations on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines,” the statement continued.

Transit workers have been seriously affected by the spread of the virus. In New York, 83 employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have died from complications related to COVID-19.

So far, SEPTA has registered 192 cases among its workforce, and four people have died.

Local 234 leaders believe a list of demands released publicly Tuesday night will create a safer work environment, and Brown has pledged to “choose life over death” for his members.

The requests include a provision that all employees be tested for a fever when they arrive for work, and that, if they register a temperature above 100.4, they be sent home with pay.

Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered essential businesses to check employee temperatures. SEPTA hasn’t been conducting tests, a spokesman told Metro Tuesday, but they’ve been informed that they are not violating the edict.

In addition, Local 234 is asking SEPTA to allow all workers with underlying medical conditions to quarantine at home with pay.

The agency has already established a 20-rider limit on buses, but the union has demanded it be lowered to 15. Local 234 also wants SEPTA to provide more buses on the busy routes to prevent overcrowding. It has been operating on a drastically-reduced “Lifeline Service Schedule” since April 8.

For workers who die of COVID-19-related complications, the union wants SEPTA to consider their deaths work-related injuries so their families would be entitled to workers’ compensation.

Local 234 also wants the families to be able to access a $500,000 pay-out, which, under the labor contract, is provided when a worker is killed in a criminal act, like a robbery, or accident on the job.

The list of demands additionally includes a four-day work week for maintenance employees and daily air testing of all vehicles.

Mayor Jim Kenney, during an afternoon press briefing, said his administration is working with SEPTA and Local 234 to resolve the dispute.

“I think people should at least prepare for some alternative method just in case, but we’re hoping cooler heads will prevail and the union will get what they’re looking for and SEPTA can continue serving the citizens,” he added.

Hospitals have contingency plans in place to make sure doctors, nurses and other medical workers are able to get to work, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said. Similar provisions are in the works for essential municipal staff.

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