Transit Riders' Open Letter to SEPTA Board and Elected Officials regarding COVID-19

To SEPTA Board Members and Officers, area members of US Congress, PA House and Senate Transportation Committee Chairs, PA House Subcommittee on Public Transportation Chairs, Philadelphia City Council Transportation and Public Utilities Committee Chairs and Federal Transportation Administration and Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader McCarthy, and Minority Leader Schumer.

Public transit is a public utility. The crisis that we are in with COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the need for public transit systems to be considered essential services, and as a necessary aspect of our healthcare and food system infrastructure. Public transit conveys front line workers in our food and healthcare industries– nurses, grocery and pharmacy clerks, hospital environmental service workers, pharmacy technicians, food warehouse workers– to their critical positions.

Therefore we must provide emergency state and federal funding for transit agencies to cover the fare revenue shortfalls and increased operating needs due to the purchase of additional safety materials, providing sick leave to workers, and increasing cleaning frequency. We must also ensure that there are also sustainable funding mechanisms in place to ensure the viability of public transit after this crisis passes, without cuts to these vital lifelines.

Moreover, given the changing state of emergency surrounding COVID-19, and the rapid response required to mitigate the worst consequences of this new and highly infectious disease, we, the undersigned, call on our transit agencies and elected officials to take the actions outlined below to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and keep transit riders and workers safe. Transit workers are in a position of high exposure to the public and the virus, and we must take all possible measures to ensure that they remain safe and healthy.


While we are grateful that SEPTA has increased station and vehicle cleaning in response to the pandemic, we are concerned that years of underfunding will ultimately put front line SEPTA employees at risk. We’ve heard of employees bringing their personal cleaning supplies to work to clean their work areas because SEPTA lacks cleaning supplies. This mirrors what we’ve seen with our shamefully underfunded public schools, where educators have no choice but to buy classroom supplies when governments refuse to fund public services.

Given the public-facing roles of SEPTA employees and operators, we agree with the demands of TWU Local 234 that SEPTA employees should be provided hazard pay and paid leave for any absence related to the coronavirus, directly or indirectly. All accrued personal leave used as the result of the pandemic should be restored. Additionally:  

  • SEPTA should waive fare payment and allow rear door boarding to limit operator exposure. Transit agencies in New York, Washington DC, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Akron, Toledo, and elsewhere have already taken this measure.

  • Cleaning crews, operators, engineers, conductors and all front line workers should receive hazard pay and regular testing during the pandemic.

  • Employees who believe they are high-risk or live with someone who is high-risk should stay home, with pay.

  • Operator pay should be unaffected by service reductions related to the pandemic. If there aren’t enough runs for operators, they should stay home, with pay.  

  • SEPTA employees should be permitted to speak openly about the realities of their working conditions without fear of retribution.

  • SEPTA management should report bi-weekly on all paid protective equipment, cleaning supply inventory and staff.

  • SEPTA should expedite hiring as needed.


With the announced service reductions, SEPTA riders deserve to know the methodology used by management in defining “essential” and “non-essential” service. We ask that SEPTA share bi-weekly updates on the specific reasons for service reductions and timelines for restoration to pre-pandemic levels.


Initial reports from other large transit agencies indicate that the loss of ridership and fare revenue during the upcoming months will threaten the future of transit agencies. Our transit agencies need emergency federal and state funding to cover the increased costs associated with COVID-19 and decreased revenue, at a scale comparable to the proposed airline industry bailout. Additionally, there needs to be a plan in place to ensure the resiliency and sustained funding of our transit agencies after this crisis passes, and a commitment to treating transit service as a necessary public good and utility. SEPTA is particularly vulnerable to service cuts after this crisis because our agency disproportionately relies on funding from the Pennsylvania state legislature, which has not also identified a revenue stream to address the impending Act 89 financial cliff.

We are encouraged that the federal aid package being negotiated in Congress appears to include some relief assistance for public transit agencies, although it is not clear how much money will go directly to SEPTA. Legislators in Washington and Harrisburg must immediately pass relief funding for SEPTA and all transit agencies. We support Transportation for America in calling for at least $12.875 billion in immediate direct financial assistance for transit agencies and ask that you do the same.


Transit riders and workers are depending on SEPTA board members and elected officials to use their political power and influence for the benefit and protection of us all. This crisis has revealed the fragility of US institutions and the cruelty of an economy designed to treat living people as expendable resources.

When this crisis is over, we encourage you to reflect on what you have observed. Do underfunded public institutions serve the public? What can we do to rebuild these institutions after decades of neglect? Who around you is trying to destroy our public institutions, and what can you do to stop them?  


Philly Transit Riders Union

Philadelphia Climate Works

Philly Socialists

Pittsburghers for Public Transit

Transit Forward Philadelphia

Individual members of TWU 234

Temple Community Development Club

Philly Workers for Dignity

350 Philadelphia

César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden