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SEPTA and union agree to new safety measures, averting crisis

Regional rail stations were nearly empty on March 17 in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Regional rail stations were nearly empty on March 17 in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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After a standoff over worker safety that threatened to derail the commutes of thousands of health care workers last week, the union that represents SEPTA employees has declared a victory.

Transport Workers United Local 234 said in a release that its fight for “enhanced safety measures” had resulted in a number of improvements, including regular COVID-19 testing employees and temperature checks.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch confirmed the agency had come to an agreement with the union and said it is in the process of acquiring necessary equipment and nailing down other details of the new protocols.

“We’ve had a good productive dialogue to get us to a better place, and we’re moving forward with them,” Busch said.

SEPTA union president Willie Brown said the authority is moving in the right direction with testing, but the agreement itself is not a big step.

“We did something that we could live with,” Brown said. “And if they carry through the actions we agreed to then we should be able to survive this thing.”

Brown said the union is focused on enforcing the agreement and is in the process of setting up a line of communication for both workers and riders if they have any SEPTA-related issues.  The union also wants to create a better system for tracking the virus’ spread.

“I’m still concerned about people tracing who has the virus or who had the virus and going from there,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern and that’s what I hope we accomplish more than anything else.”

In addition to the testing procedures, SEPTA agreed to institute a more rigorous cleaning schedule, requiring workers to wipe down vehicles, equipment and facilities’ surfaces with disinfectant every two hours. SEPTA facilities where multiple workers have tested positive for COVID-19 are being sterilized as well.

SEPTA also relaxed the rules governing sick leave and benefits, making it easier for workers to stay home as needed without disciplinary action. Those who test positive for the novel coronavirus and those they’ve been in contact with will receive full pay. High-risk employees are now permitted to take sick leave even if they are not sick.

The agreement between SEPTA management and TWU came after Mayor Jim Kenney stepped in and asked union president Willie Brown to hold off on the job action planned for last Thursday. The disruption to transit “would jeopardize many lives,” said city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco.

Kenney confirmed the two sides resolved this issue sometime before or during the weekend. The mayor said he appreciates the union’s willingness to work toward an agreement without taking the action.

“Health care workers and other essential staff are relying on SEPTA more than ever and it’s critical that we work together to ensure public transportation is accessible to those who need it,” said Kenney.

SEPTA’s workforce is down by about 20%, according to Busch. Positive coronavirus cases among SEPTA workers have passed 220 and the authority suffered its fifth fatality this week with the death of Yolanda Woodberry, a bus operator out of Frankford depot. Woodberry worked for SEPTA for 17 years.

Busch said SEPTA and the union remain in talks about death benefits for the families of fallen employees.

TWU wants a $500,000 death benefit for all workers who die as a result of the coronavirus. New York transit workers won a similar benefit earlier this month.

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