SEPTA union asks for hazard pay and higher wages as contract negotiations begin

Assistant Director of Transportation Ken Divers, who leads the vulnerable population task force at SEPTA, walks on the platform at Somerset Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Assistant Director of Transportation Ken Divers, who leads the vulnerable population task force at SEPTA, walks on the platform at Somerset Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

SEPTA and the union that represents thousands of transit workers have begun negotiating a new contract.

Transport Workers Union Local 234 wants the new contract to acknowledge its members as frontline workers who showed up despite risks to their personal safety. The union says SEPTA was late in getting them personal protective equipment, so they worried about their safety at work.

More than 800 SEPTA employees have gotten COVID-19, and nine have died since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

“I’ve been in every round of negotiations for probably the last 20 years, and this by far is going to be the hardest, based off of where we are in the world today,” Brian Pollitt, the union’s executive vice president, said in a video statement Tuesday.

“Let’s get away from … business as usual and get to the human side,”  said SEPTA cashier Malikah Askia.

“It takes a special person to be a bus operator, transit operator, period … and they … should be treated specially,” said bus operator Whitney Price.

The union also points out that SEPTA got millions of dollars in federal relief money. At the same time, the transit agency has lost hundreds of thousands of riders per day because of the pandemic, and says the relief funding will keep the agency afloat just until next year. SEPTA recently finalized its operating and capital budgets, and passed a plan to restore some of the services cut during the pandemic.

The union did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it would like retroactive hazard pay, higher wages, and the same benefits.

SEPTA said in a statement that it looks forward to discussing issues at the bargaining table to reach a fair and responsible contract.

The current contract expires in October. Pollitt is already raising the possibility of a strike if the union is not satisfied with the negotiations.

The last strike, in 2016, went on for six days and ended just before Election Day. 

In April 2020, the union threatened, then canceled a planned “job action” over demands for rider limits, paid quarantine leave, and a death benefit for workers who die because of COVID-19.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal