By Howard Monroe

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – SEPTA’s workers’ union says the lives of employees and riders are at risk because of the coronavirus pandemic. And now, they’re looking to the courts in order to protect their civil rights.

The president of SEPTA’s workers’ union is calling out the transit agency. He says the agency’s policies are putting workers’ and riders’ health at risk.

“SEPTA is acting as if the pandemic is over, that we’re out of harm’s way. Nothing could be further from the truth,” TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown said.

Brown says his members are being put at risk as coronavirus cases soar.

“Us here at local 234, we are going in the wrong direction,” Brown said.

Brown released this video to the union’s website Sunday night. He says, in two weeks, the number of positive cases ballooned from 356 to over 500. He says the agency isn’t following the CDC’s or its own guidelines.

The union has also retained a lawyer. They say they are looking into whether the civil rights of the workers and riders are being violated.

“Remember, once you get in that vehicle you’re closed in. The vehicle is now an iron coffin,” Brown said. “We don’t want to catch it from the riding public, just like they don’t want to catch it from us.”

Brown claims the agency isn’t performing contact tracing and says they aren’t paying employees when they have to quarantine, which is forcing drivers to come to work when they may be sick. Brown says that’s putting other employees and riders at risk.

“We have to take this seriously, take our lives in our own hands because it’s become quite obvious that SEPTA is not going to assist us in this matter,” Brown said.

In a statement, 5th Square, the city’s urbanist/transit political action committee, expressed its support for the union.

“5th Square supports SEPTA workers and their families, who have kept our city moving throughout the pandemic. SEPTA is a lifeline to essential workers managing our region’s public health response, and SEPTA’s frontline workers are essential workers themselves. We stand with everyone calling for a more robust and comprehensive testing, tracing, and vaccination program within SEPTA, and in the city as a whole. SEPTA needs more funding now to do right by its workers and riders, and we call on our federal representatives in Congress to appropriate the outstanding $17 billion in emergency transit funding needed to keep transit running here and across America. We also call on our PA state representatives to get to work on a sustainable transit funding program to replace Act 44 as it scales down funding in 2022. Transit, and our transit workers, are essential, and it’s time for our elected leaders to deliver the aid we need.”

CBS3 reached out to the SEPTA administration for a response. They released a statement that reads:

“The health and safety of employees and customers has remained SEPTA’s number one priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. SEPTA has instituted a rigorous contact tracing program to try to limit the spread among employees. When a confirmed or suspected case is reported by an employee, SEPTA managers immediately work to identify all potential close contacts. SEPTA has taken a number of other steps to try to limit the spread of COVID-19 among the workforce. Through a partnership with the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, employees can receive on-site testing. The Authority is also working closely with public health officials to finalize vaccination plans. SEPTA continues to work to maintain a safe, health environment for employees and customers. This includes a robust cleaning and disinfecting program for employee and customer areas, a mask requirement, and social distancing for both workers and riders. SEPTA also recently announced a partnership with Drexel University to review current practices and find ways to enhance these efforts moving forward. Throughout the pandemic, SEPTA has made clear that employees should not report to work if they are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19. The Authority instituted a COVID leave policy that is meant to encourage employees to stay home and isolate when these incidents occur. The COVID leave policy allows employees to receive full pay for two weeks after a positive test or an incident of exposure at work. Employees who need to take additional time can use regular sick leave, during which they receive a portion of their pay and maintain their healthcare and other benefits. SEPTA is committed to continuing a dialogue with unions that represent workers, as we work through this unprecedented situation together.”

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