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COVID-19 Spreads Through RTA Staff As Safety Measures And Federal Guidance Lag

Ben Depp
Valerie Jefferson poses for a photo at Duncan Plaza, a hub for RTA busses. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 23, 2020.

Social distancing is hard on a bus.

The RTA has cut back services and instituted new rules to protect riders and drivers but still, as of Monday, 67 employees had tested positive for the coronavirus and three bus drivers have died.

Valerie Jefferson has been driving buses for nearly 30 years, usually on the Galvez or Morrison lines in New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward. She is president of the LOCAL 1560. She loves her job, and finds the riders entertaining.

“I literally do not watch a reality show because I work in it every day," she said. "Sometimes they make you mad, but 90 percent of the time they make you glad.”

But now she’s on-edge, and so are her riders, like Dimetria Boykins.

“I’m a little nervous,” she said, as she waited for a bus at Broad and Canal. “Because we don’t know who has what. You just keep praying.”

Back in March the RTA cut the number of buses running by half. But a handful of bus drivers and riders say that cutting service has made a few of the busy lines, like the Broad bus and Canal streetcar, even busier.

“On the busiest lines sometimes we have a standing load — we have 30 to 40 people on one bus," Jefferson said. "That’s too many.”

Credit Provided by Valerie Jefferson

Alex Wiggins, the CEO of the RTA, said that is not true, and that there should only be 20 riders on a bus at a time so that people can socially-distance. He said they monitor ridership in real-time and send out extra buses when there are too many riders.

“I look at the numbers essentially every single day and we've had very, very few spikes where we've had more than, let's say, 30 people on a bus,” he said. “When that does occur, we have a plan to add more buses to the field to address that.”

New Orleans Public Radio asked the RTA for those numbers but the agency didn’t provide them. That means we do not know if the reductions in service have reduced the risk for drivers or passengers or increased risk, and we don’t know whether those extra buses are actually being sent out. A spokesperson said ridership was down 91 percent from last year, but did not provide ridership data.

Wiggins, who himself was hospitalized with COVID-19, said the agency has also taken steps to protect drivers, giving them masks and building plexiglass dividers.

Still, he acknowledged that most days, more than 100 drivers call in sick. The company brought back about 20 workers who were laid off before the pandemic. Wiggins said there is no shortage of drivers.

Jefferson said drivers are overworked and need better protections.

“I have operators, they are literally working over twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

So she wrote letters to RTA leadership and Transdev, the company that operates the buses, demanding better protections, for the buses to be cleaned more often, hazard pay, and more efforts to decrease crowding.

Operators are now being issued protective gear including gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer. RTA did not comment on the status of the other requests.

Alex Posorske, the director of RIDE New Orleans, a group that advocates for better public transportation, said this is a really tough situation and the transit system wasn’t in good shape going into it. 

“Public transit is viewed as something for poor people,” he said, and the system has long needed improvements.

RIDE has found that it takes more than 30 minutes to reach most jobs in the region, and 20 percent of the population relies on mass transit. There aren’t enough bus stops, and buses are usually late.

Credit Ben Depp / For WWNO
Jamaal Williams smiles as the bus pulls up. Williams says “I’ve been waiting for about an hour. Its a good thing (the busses are still running), but they got us getting on the back of the bus. They only got one or two busses on a line so you got to wait an hour or two”. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 22, 2020.

A lot of lower-income workers in New Orleans East and the Westbank rely on buses to get around, and those areas also have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the state.

But the RTA didn’t get much federal guidance on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. It had to figure out how to build plastic shields for the drivers quickly, and make decisions about how to cut service but still serve the public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally issued recommendations last week.

Now the RTA is getting $43 million from the Federal Transportation Administration to help manage the crisis. Jefferson hopes to see that money go to hazard pay and overtime for drivers, but she also said she has no plans to strike.

“No, I know what my job is,” she said. “I just wish that the company would take care of us. We move this city. I call it respect.”

Credit Ben Depp / For WWNO
Valerie Jefferson poses for a photo at Duncan Plaza, a hub for RTA busses. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 23, 2020.


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Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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