Valerie Jefferson, in red, at a press conference in front of the RTA workers union building on Sept. 13, 2021.

Valerie Jefferson, president of the New Orleans transit workers union, is alleging that she was fired by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority for asking the agency to follow an agreement calling for extra pay for RTA employees for emergency response after Hurricane Ida.

In a letter sent to the RTA’s board of commissioners on Monday, the Amalgamated Transit Union called for Jefferson’s reinstatement and the resignation of RTA CEO Alex Wiggins. In statements to The Lens, the RTA disputed many of Jefferson’s claims. 

While bus and ferry services in the city were suspended on Saturday, Aug. 28 — the day before the storm made landfall — and remained suspended for days after the storm, RTA vehicles were still in use. 

Beginning on Sept. 1, the RTA dispatched dozens of buses across the city to serve as cooling centers for residents who lacked power. RTA buses were also used to transport people taking advantage of a city-assisted evacuation program. All of that required RTA drivers, some of whom worked several days of 12-hour shifts without a day off, according to a statement from Jefferson’s union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560. 

The union and the agency inked an agreement for additional pay for the post-hurricane work. And Jefferson now says she was fired last week after demanding that the agency live up to its end of the deal.

“We had to put out cooling stations because everybody was hot. They placed the buses all over the city for everybody, and some buses had power stations. They had buses in front of all the nursing homes and retirement houses for people to come in out of the heat,” said Jefferson at a Monday night press conference outside the union headquarters in Gentilly.

“So they needed help from the union to bring in operators, so of course I helped them. Operators came in, and they were sad because they were leaving home, leaving families. … We sacrificed.”

Jefferson said that she and Thomas Stringer, RTA’s deputy CEO for operations, had worked out an emergency pay agreement, and that it had been approved and signed by Wiggins. She provided The Lens with a copy of the email, which shows Wiggins’ and Jefferson’s signatures, and is dated Sept. 5. 

The agreement says that “employees reporting to work during a hurricane emergency event” would be paid for an additional 10 hours on top of the time they spent on shift. 

“We were on standby to do whatever RTA wanted us to do,” said Curtis Howard, the ATU’s international vice president, who also attended the press conference.

But Jefferson said that the hours were supposed to be added to timesheets last Friday, and that didn’t happen.

The RTA said in a statement provided to The Lens that it will honor the Sept. 5 agreement with the union and denied that Jefferson was fired for her advocacy. 

“The [RTA] is clear that our transit workers provide reliable transportation to doctors appointments, work, and to other critical destinations all year round. This is especially true in times of crisis and extreme weather,” the statement, provided by RTA spokesperson Arian Randolph, reads.

“The additional ‘Hurricane Pay’ will be included in the regularly scheduled pay date, September 17th. Additionally, to help all RTA employees manage the unforeseen costs of hurricane damage, the RTA has provided an opportunity for employees to cash out vacation leave balances.”

In a follow-up email, Randolph disputed that bus drivers were ever told that the agreement wouldn’t be honored.

Jefferson’s firing

On Monday, Jefferson said that after a meeting last week about the pay situation, Wiggins accused her of cursing at him in a “threatening manner,” and fired her for insubordination.

“I do not curse,” she said.

Randolph, the RTA spokesperson, said in response to questions from The Lens that the agency “does not comment on personnel matters. In this case, we can confirm the cause was unrelated to transit union affairs.” 

In a follow-up email, Randolph wrote “there was no meeting to discuss [the pay agreement].”

“The CEO has the right to terminate any employee with cause,” the email continued.

But Howard, from the ATU, alleged that the firing was part of a pattern of retaliation by Wiggins. A Fox 8 News investigation last year reported that while Wiggins worked as the head of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s security department, the Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office opened an investigation into complaints of a hostile work environment and retaliation.

“The investigation found that Wiggins engaged in abusive, humiliating, demeaning behavior,” Fox 8 reported. It also reported allegations from an anonymous employee who said Wiggins had sexually harassed her, and retaliated when she didn’t respond to his advances.

Randolph called the Fox 8 story “grossly inaccurate,” though she did not point to specific inaccuracies. She wrote, however, that “Wiggins has never been [disciplined] by any past employer for any reason.”

Post-storm working conditions

At the press conference, Jefferson also said that the RTA hadn’t provided shelter to all of its operators during the storm, or meals during the aftermath.

The RTA booked 100 rooms in the Hyatt Centric, Jefferson said, which she said “was supposed to be for the operations department. But guess what? You had 13 operators who did not have no room.”

“We had a couple of them sleeping in their cars, some of them went home, and a couple of them slept in the station” during the storm, she said.

“Hotel rooms were offered to every person assigned to work during the storm,” Randolph, the RTA spokesperson, wrote. “Some employees opted to sleep in our headquarters because the building had air conditioning. In fact, the CEO gave up his assigned room to an operator and slept in chair in his office for much of the disaster response.”

Howard also alleged that operators who drove buses in the days after the storm, including as cooling centers and to evacuate seniors and other vulnerable individuals, weren’t always being fed. 

“I just heard this tonight, but when they didn’t get lunch or breakfast. They was out there on their own because all of the stores were closed in the area, and they couldn’t get off the bus.”

But Randolph said on Tuesday that the agency did its best to keep employees fed. 

“Like many New Orleanians, securing food for employees was a difficult challenge due to the food supply across the entire city,” Randolph wrote. “Our teams worked hard to find meals under the toughest of circumstances for all employees who were working.”