In July, St. Helena Parish officials made 12 parish workers commit to working 13-hour days seven days a week in the summer heat or risk getting laid off, records show, in a bid to mend ditches and cut back overgrowth that had gotten out of hand.
Now, one of those workers has been fired after complaining about the situation to the federal government.
Truck driver Antwain Jackson on Oct. 27 went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying in a complaint that the St. Helena police jury discriminated against him by suspending him when he got a doctor’s note saying he should work only standard hours.
Just a couple weeks later, on Nov. 9, the police jury voted to fire Jackson, ending a weeks-long stalemate where officials would neither bring him back to work nor terminate him for good.
The employees commissioned in July to work overtime had to fill those hours so the parish could catch up on long-overdue repairs to ditches and remove sprawling plant growth that was creeping onto road shoulders, according to Jackson and police jurors.
Jackson, who drove dump trucks and mowers for the parish, said he was recovering from COVID-19 at the time. Exhaustion caught up to him a few weeks after he signed a form agreeing to work the grueling schedule, he said.
“I had worked three weeks straight (after the overtime order), and I started feeling bad,” Jackson said. He got a note from his doctor in St. Tammany Parish on Aug. 9, saying his lingering COVID symptoms precluded Jackson from working more than eight-hour days.
He was suspended without pay soon after.
In November, a month after Jackson told the EEOC he felt his suspension was discriminatory, Jackson returned to the federal agency — this time, charging that his firing by the police jury had been retaliatory.
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Whether his allegations pose a legal threat to the parish remains to be seen; the federal agency is now reviewing the case.
The parish’s actions may have been legal, however.
Louisiana employers can compel employees to work overtime so long as they pay them for the extra hours, according to Jill Craft, a Baton Rouge lawyer who specializes in employment litigation.
Jackson’s claim that the parish retaliated against him by dismissing him after an earlier complaint may provide some leverage. But even that effort will likely require Jackson to jump through “a whole bunch of hoops,” Craft said.
“Generally speaking in Louisiana, you have to prove a case within a case,” the lawyer said. “Meaning, you have to prove that there was an actual violation of the law — that you were actually discriminated against, and that as a result of reporting the unlawful violation, that you were subject to reprisal.”
When Jackson filed his first charge with the EEOC in October, records show the agency found no grounds for his discrimination claim.
Albert D. Giraud, the police jury’s attorney, declined to comment on Jackson’s charges because they involve pending litigation. Reached by phone, public works superintendent Albert Franklin said Friday that he had “nothing to say about that,” referring to Jackson's situation.
The spat is the latest wrinkle in the police jury’s efforts to mend St. Helena's infrastructure and roads, which have yielded complaints over the years as asphalt caves in and crumbles. A lack of funding in the rural parish with a low tax base has often hamstrung repairs.
Residents of St. Helena Parish have long driven on roads that seem to cave in as quickly as they’re fixed.
Police jury president Frank E. Johnson became embroiled in a dispute with the owner of a gravel pit this fall, saying gravel trucks destroyed a stretch of newly-paved road in his district (the company said the fault was Johnson’s for skimping on fixing the road in the first place).
And last month, members of the police jury clashed over results of a $4.6 million roads project that’s drawing to a close. Roads crumbled and broke apart in some areas after a large New Orleans construction firm had finished repairing them.
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Records show the panel voted at a July 20 special meeting to require overtime hours so workers could make headway on a similar set of repairs. Ditches in the parish’s fifth ward were caving in and foliage had become overgrown due to a lack of maintenance, Jackson explained.
Workers agreed to work "from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., 7 days a week until further notice," and acknowledged that "any worker who fails to comply will be laid off," according to a copy of the agreement signed by Jackson and obtained by The Advocate.
Fifth district police juror Ryan Byrd declined to comment Friday on Jackson’s allegations, saying only that at this point, “everything’s understood” about the situation.