Businesses Reflect on Challenges Big and Small After the 2016 SEPTA Strike

When SEPTA buses, trolleys and subways were brought to a halt earlier this month during the most recent city transit strike, business slowed down at Sandy Neitham’s dry cleaning shop near Girard Station station on the Broad Street Line. And running the storefront became a lot more difficult.

“It affected [Sun’s Cleaner’s] a lot because [people] are coming from all over,” said Neitham. “From lots of different neighborhoods.”

Several of the store owner’s customers have been coming to get their clothes cleaned at her North Broad Street shop for years. But many do not or cannot drive so they rely on SEPTA to get there.

“I had to be here everyday,” said Neitham because her other employee couldn’t get to work.

The store owner spoke impassionedly about SEPTA and the striking workers and said she hopes they understand what striking does to her small business.

“They should really know,” said Neitham.

Larger businesses also had to go to extra lengths during the strike. Many accommodated their workers when some had to call out. Other workers were flexible.

For Metropolitan Bakery’s employees who work in the production side of the business it was not simple to get to their Fishtown location near Girard Station and Berks Station on the Market-Frankford Line. They make pastries and baked goods for Metropolitan Bakery’s locations during odd hours of the day so that they can be ready for serving and selling during the morning when the company sells a lot of their product.

“What people did was they doubled up,” said Wendy Born, owner of Metropolitan Bakery. “People who had cars picked people up. Occasionally used Uber a couple of times and shared Ubers. And people walked long distances or rode their bikes. So, it was a combination of things.”

Walking long distances was not uncommon.

“One staff member walked home during the week from West Philly. That was probably the furthest,” said Taylor Haynos, General Manager at The Franklin Fountain, an ice cream and soda store near the 2nd Street Station on the Market-Frankford Line.

The walk from the general area of the West Philadelphia neighborhood to the ice cream store in Old City is an estimated 4 and a half miles long and takes about one hour and 32 minutes, according to Google Maps. A significantly longer commute than the estimated 35-minute commute on SEPTA vehicles.

Other employees of Franklin Fountain, who did not walk, live even further away from work and got in a morning workout.

“Some of the guys in the morning took 10-mile bike rides to get here at 7 a.m. to open our shops,” said Haynos.

Infogram estimating how far some employees traveled to work during the SEPTA strike. Created by Stetson Miller.
Infogram estimating how far some employees traveled to work during the SEPTA strike. Created by Stetson Miller.

Expensive Uber rides were an unfortunate reality for others heading to work from long distances like those coming from Northeast Philadelphia. Several businesses like Franklin Fountain and Metropolitan Bakery absorbed their employees’ transit costs and reimbursed them.

Some who wanted to avoid paying nearly $30 for an Uber, a hefty price compared to the usual $1.80 cost of a token to take SEPTA, took matters into their own hands.

“One of our staff members,” said Haynos, “actually bought a bike last week during the strike, kind of, for that purpose to ride to and from work. That was unexpected… but I am happy he’s got it.”

It paid to live close to work during the strike. P.S. & Co., a vegan café and bakery near Rittenhouse Square and the Walnut-Locust Station on the Broad Street Line, has employees who generally live not too far from work and many bike to get their thus lessening the effect of the public transit strike. Others who live over an estimated 14 miles from work may have had to deal with expensive Uber rides.

Business was difficult too during the week of the SEPTA transit strike. Businesses across Center City and North Philadelphia reported lower sales and losses.

Buffalo Exchange, a used clothing reseller on Chestnut Street and South 17th Street near City Hall Station on the Broad Street Line, reported that sales were down about $2000 below their goal. Blocks away at Snap Pizza on Sansom Street and South 15th Street, business was down by about 15 percent. And at the Barbour store, a jacket and coat store, on Walnut Street and South 16th Street, just steps away from the Walnut-Locust Street Station on the Broad Street Line, sales were down by an estimated 20 percent.

“It was pretty big. We definitely felt it,” said Mary Kate Maher, who works at Barbour. “We saw a lot less foot traffic.”

SEPTA has gone on strike often in Philadelphia. Over the past 11 years they have gone on strike four times: in 2005, 2009, 2014 and 2016. New York is the nearest major city to Philadelphia and it has only gone on strike once during that same period of time. The last strike that occurred there happened in 2005.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in 1998, before the turn of the century, that there were seven other SEPTA strikes. The bureau’s report also stated that Local 234 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents the 5,000 workers on the trolleys, buses and subways, and SEPTA had a tumultuous bargaining history.

The effect of a SEPTA strike goes beyond being just an annoyance for the average person. It makes running a business even more difficult during a strike.

“It means you have another layer to deal with,” said Born.

The future for Born and others across the city likely will include another strike. Going forward, factoring in a strike could be a part of standard finances and planning for Philadelphia businesses.



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