News Home
Opinion: Want your employees to work in the office? Pay for their commutes.
Employee Benefits

Opinion: Want your employees to work in the office? Pay for their commutes.

This "gesture of appreciation" by employers who want to end working from home will help keep workers, boost SEPTA and Center City's recovery from the pandemic, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Will Sanderson
November 16, 2023

Originally published on the Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia’s new commuter benefit law took effect this year, landing the city on a short list of jurisdictions that require employers to offer workers pretax or employer-paid transit benefits. It’s a win-win ordinance that should unlock commuter cost-savings and increase transit ridership, but its introduction to Philly has been clouded by a challenge that’s changing the way we look at transit benefits: Nobody wants to commute anymore.

Commuting has shifted from a necessary evil to an unnecessary hindrance in the eyes of many office workers who are now accustomed to remote work. Yet as teams struggle to collaborate and downtown office vacancies rise, Philadelphia employers are more bullish than ever to bring their employees back to the office. City officials say the new commuter benefit ordinance, which requires employers with a staff of 50 or more to provide transit benefits to eligible employees, can accelerate this return to the office and alleviate commuter woes.

But let’s face it: Allowing employees to pay for their own transit rides with pretax dollars (the ordinance’s minimum requirement) is not enough of an incentive to lure workers into an office four or five days a week. If companies are insistent on a successful office comeback, they need to subsidize their employees’ transit costs.

This argument has reverberated around the workforce as businesses nationally push for an office return. One recent Newsweek survey found that three-quarters of respondents aged 23-44 believed their workplaces should subsidize the costs of travel to and from an office. Meanwhile, a 2022 analysis from Clever found that, in Philadelphia, the average commuter spends one hour traveling to and from work each day, with costs adding up to more than $9,600 each year — or 21% of the median household income in the city.

Sure, a benefit that allows employees to use pretax dollars for public transit fares can help commuters save on these costs. But if a job can otherwise be done from home, why should employees need to pay at all?

There’s no denying that employer-provided transit subsidies are an extra expense for companies to consider, but we’ve reached an inflection point where workers would rather leave their jobs than invest substantial money back into a commute. And employee turnover costs money — an average of $15,000 per employee — so employers who pay for workers’ transit costs could actually end up saving more money in the end.

This mindset is especially true for the city’s shift-based and frontline workers, most of whom don’t have the luxury of working from home. As the costs of their required commutes pile on top of unpredictable schedules, income disparity, and general burnout, these workers are more likely than ever to quit their jobs for better opportunities. An employer-provided transit subsidy may not be the silver bullet to eradicate these unfavorable conditions, but it’s a significant gesture of appreciation to those who leave home every day to service the needs of others.

A subsidized transit benefit could also have a strong influence over the hiring and retention of early and mid-career professionals who have increasingly sought out employers who care about climate change. With motor vehicles responsible for an estimated 60% of Philadelphia’s air pollution, employers can make a significant dent in the city’s goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050 by incentivizing rail or bus rides. (We estimated that one large Philadelphia employer saved an estimated 7,000 metric tons of carbon in the first year of its employer-paid transit benefit program.)

It’s one of the many ways public transit can make Philadelphia a better city to commute and work in, but the system will need more riders to stay afloat. Riders aren’t flocking back to SEPTA as much as they are to public transit in other cities, despite SEPTA’s best efforts to regain pre-pandemic ridership levels. This has led SEPTA to project potential service cuts and fare increases in years to come, and without employer support, these new fares can push commuters even further from an office return.

By paying for employees to commute via transit, employers have an opportunity not only to protect SEPTA and other regional agencies but also to spur a downtown revitalization that spans far beyond our office buildings. Riding transit can reexpose commuters to the small businesses and neighborhood gems found along our city’s bus routes and bike lanes. It can foster a sense of community that we’ve lost to the confines of home, all while alleviating the congestion that often keeps us inside. And beyond all else, it can revitalize our economic activity and breathe new life into the city we love.

The road to recovery is long, but change is possible — and it starts with our commutes.


Will Sanderson is the cofounder of Jawnt, a Philadelphia-based transportation technology company offering commuter services to employers, students, and other organizations. Jawnt is a partner of the SEPTA Key Advantage program and Indego bike share’s corporate program.

Will Sanderson

The Jawnt blog

Sign up for our newsletter updates

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.