PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Transit workers are on the frontlines, transporting some of the soldiers fighting the war against the coronavirus. The virus is hitting the SEPTA ranks hard.
Buses and trains are still running but there are issues behind the scenes that lead SEPTA employees to believe their health and safety are at risk.
After being called out by the union president over SEPTA employees’ safety, the transit agency has announced several changes to its operations to protect drivers and riders.
Starting Wednesday, rear-door boarding and exiting will be implemented on all buses and trolleys. Riders with disabilities will still be allowed to use the front doors.
SEPTA has also imposed rider limits on vehicles — 20 on buses, 25 on trolleys and 30 on the Norristown High Speed Line.
The changes come after a total of 13 SEPTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19. A number of them are on the frontlines, working with customers on a daily basis.
Although all running buses have been equipped with plastic shields meant to protect the driver, the union says it’s not enough.
“We are taking this very seriously. I don’t believe SEPTA is taking it serious enough,” Local 234 President Willie Brown said.
At least one of the drivers that tested positive worked in the Comly Bus Depot.
An agency representative says they understand employees are nervous but as Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday, there is a protocol they follow.
“The employer, in this case, the agency, is likewise notified so that anybody who needed the information can get it and that appropriate cleaning is done in the workplace,” Farley said.
SEPTA’s general manager says members that were in contact with any infected employee have been sent home to quarantine for 14 days with pay.
However, Local 234 is insisting those with underlying health conditions be placed on paid leave immediately.
They say buses are getting crowded, which doesn’t adhere to social distancing policies, and they’re demanding additional protective equipment such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizer.
“They’ve cut overtime, so now if you can’t do overtime, the vehicles aren’t being cleaned the way they should. These buses are not being sanitized,” Brown said.
The union is also demanding hazard pay.
SEPTA released a statement Tuesday night in response to the concerns raised by the union, reading in part:
“SEPTA recognizes that our employees are working in challenging times. Safety has always been at the core of who we are and what we do each day, and at no time has our commitment to employee safety been more important. We have an ongoing dialogue with union leadership and will continue to coordinate throughout the crisis. Our management team has scrutinized every aspect of our operations to better understand how to safeguard our employees and our customers. We have solicited feedback from our frontline employees and made decisions about safety in concert with the unions.”