AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation held Tamela Saldana up as a “superhero” when she trekked across the state working to help contract with minority and women-owned businesses. But everywhere she went, Saldana said she encountered a similar troubling scene.
“I traveled to almost every district in TxDOT, and the faces were the same. They were the same. They were male, and they were predominately white male,” Saldana said. “If you saw a minority person, they were going to be the lowest level – the person who checked you into the front desk or the person who was out in the parking lot picking up litter.”
After more than a decade of glowing performance reviews, Saldana’s tenure with TxDOT came to an acrimonious end in 2012. That year, TxDOT fired the former University of Texas track star. She, in turn, sued for discrimination.
A KXAN investigation of TxDOT’s workforce reveals Saldana’s experience is one of hundreds that underscore the agency’s ongoing struggle to address gender and racial disparities — and their unfortunate side effects — in a culture historically and predominantly composed of white men, especially at its highest echelons.
KXAN found workers officially made more than 200 allegations against the agency in the past five years. Many of those came from women and minorities alleging harassment, discrimination and retaliation, according to internal TxDOT documents obtained through an open records request. Dozens of workers have also sued the agency in recent years on those grounds, according to court records.
‘Doing something wrong’
Last year, women made up just 22 percent of the agency’s 11,627 employees. Fewer than eight percent of workers were African-American. Both of those statistics are lower than they were a decade earlier, according to state data.
But, TxDOT officials say they are working to diversify and add more women to the ranks. Those efforts include target-recruiting at job fairs, schools and women’s employment organizations. Executive management is also proactively monitoring applications to ensure progress in hiring more women and minorities.
In a brief interview with KXAN, TxDOT's executive director James Bass said the agency is working to strengthen its recruiting. The department is reaching out to universities and “even high schools that have STEM programs” to seek “quality applications from both female and minorities.”
Despite those efforts, men continue to fill most open positions at TxDOT, according to a KXAN analysis of agency records. Between January 2017 and March 2018, women made up a third of TxDOT's total job applicants but only a fifth of actual hires.
“When we open up jobs, we're not getting a full spectrum of applicants for our jobs and that's why it's so important for us to work on the recruiting efforts,” Bass said. “We need to ensure that we're getting good applications from a broad spectrum of Texans."
Last May, as part of recruitment and retention efforts, a video on TxDOT's YouTube channel featured agency engineer Marisa Ramirez encouraging other women to set goals for themselves.
“It gives us the opportunity to show that there is growth and then that chance for us to excel, to show that we are also able to do it,” Ramirez said, who had just become maintenance supervisor at the agency’s Roma district office.
Still, critics including former employees and lawmakers like State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, say more needs to be done.
“You can’t just shrug your shoulders and just say, ‘Well that’s just the way it is.’ I’m not in charge of TxDOT, but I would strongly encourage them to have a workforce that reflects Texas,” Israel said. “If every organization — whether you’re in the private sector or the public sector — is not reflective of the community that you serve, you’re doing something wrong.”
‘Stressful working environment’
Saldana’s tenure at TxDOT ended when she was working as a program section director overseeing the Civil Rights Division’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), Small Business Enterprise (SBE), and Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB) programs. Her office worked to ensure all businesses have equal opportunities to compete for TxDOT contracts.
TxDOT seemed to seize on Saldana’s personal history as an African-American athlete to promote her department’s efforts. On the cover of a 2009 TxDOT newsletter, the agency featured a comic book image of Saldana running alongside a bullet train in a tight red outfit with lightning bolts on the thighs and forearm-length white gloves.
“Tamela Saldana knows about winning,” says a caption on the newsletter cover. “As program manager for the Business Outreach and Programs Services Office (BOP) of TxDOT, she helps small and minority vendors grow and prosper.”
Saldana said it later felt like she was “there as a showpiece for [TxDOT’s] minority diversity.”
At meetings in TxDOT district's across the state, Saldana said she was often the only female and the only African American in the room.
“The lack of diversity created a very, very stressful working environment for me,” she explained.
Her position at the agency became strained when she escalated allegations of racial discrimination, she said.
“The more I complained, the more I felt retaliated against,” Saldana added. “In their eyes, I became the problem.”
TxDOT said Saldana was ultimately fired for signing off on contracts with a service provider with whom she had a personal relationship. Records show she had disclosed the relationship to the federal government years prior, but TxDOT said her actions violated state policy.
“One of the things that was really hard for me was that, here I am as a African-American female who took a lot of pride in my profession. I worked hard. I went to school, got a master’s, got a PhD,” she said.
State legislators have renewed their scrutiny of TxDOT demographics since a 2017 report was released by the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is a legislative committee that audits state agencies to identify redundancy and problems.
“TxDOT has continually struggled to improve its workforce diversity, repeatedly falling below statewide civilian workforce percentages for employment of African Americans, Hispanics, and women, yet has not fully implemented its own plans for improvement,” according to the report, which uses 2015 data. “TxDOT has repeatedly not met [Equal Employment Opportunity] statewide civilian workforce percentages in certain categories and has not consistently implemented plans to improve its workforce diversity.”
The agency has also struggled to diversify its management and executive ranks, according to the report. White men represent 56 percent of TxDOT’s workforce, and men take home 29 of the agency's top 30 salaries. The highest paid female is 27th in the pay ranking, according to data provided to KXAN by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
In the area of service and maintenance at TxDOT, women make up just five percent of workers compared to the state’s civilian workforce with 42 percent. In jobs requiring higher skills like technicians, women hold 12 percent of those roles at TxDOT but 53 percent in the civilian workforce.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, sits on both the House Sunset and transportation panels.
“[Women] are not selected, because [TxDOT officials] feel that we are encroaching upon the boys club – an area that is reserved just for them,” Thompson said. “I looked out and saw what the numbers were, and they were deplorable. Deplorable. And the answer that they gave me really and truly was really not an answer. It was just an excuse.”
Bass pointed out that women, on average agency-wide, earn more than $5,400 more than men at TxDOT, a number KXAN confirmed through Comptroller data. However, men hold the majority of the agency's positions, including lower-paying jobs which bring down the male average considerably.
“I'm proud to say, for the first time ever in TxDOT's history, our construction division and our design division are led by female personnel,” Bass said.
Sandra Black, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the gender-wage gap, said TxDOT has substantial “occupational segregation” where men typically dominate certain job categories and women others.
“They just have a series of occupations that are predominantly male," Black said. "And so, the question is: Are you OK with that? Or, do you think the goal of the government is to kind of be a role model and set a better example?”
While many job categories are segregated by gender, some women like Tracy Martinez bucked that trend.
Martinez was one of the few women in TxDOT’s maintenance section in Waco, where she worked for a decade.
In that district, 14 percent of the workers are currently women. No women are administrators or officials, according to TxDOT data.
“I started out hanging signs, striping roads, swinging a sledge hammer,” Martinez said. “I did a lot of hard work.”
But, Martinez also said she had to endure inappropriate behavior from a supervisor and male colleagues. One problem: an exercise routine.
Employees in her office were asked to stretch as a group in the morning to prevent workplace injury. She was one of the only women involved.
“We were all crammed up into the one room, and then the guys started making inappropriate names for the stretches. One of them entailed bending over and touching your toes, and they called it ‘the promotion,’” Martinez said.
Martinez said she finally decided she would no longer take part in the stretches, and that ultimately led to retaliation.
TxDOT also required random drug testing. Martinez said she was subjected to inappropriate comments when she had to stand in a room full of men holding a cup of her urine for the drug test.
She voiced concerns to her supervisor and experienced retribution, she said. TxDOT said she was ultimately fired for substandard performance, pointing to poor reviews and unwillingness to take part in worker activities.
“They robbed me of my retirement. I mean this is really frustrating because I had a goal, and I took a lot of pride in the work,” she said.
Martinez appealed her termination and filed a complaint against the agency. A TxDOT spokesperson said her “allegation was investigated and the Waco District did counsel those she alleged made the comments to inform them that type of conduct would not be tolerated." Martinez ultimately lost her appeal.
The ratio of complaints to employees is low, the spokesperson said, and the department has improved its process for handling employee complaints, among numerous measures to diversify its workforce.
In a prepared statement, TxDOT’s lone female commissioner, Laura Ryan, said the agency made improvements to the process of handling employee complaints in 2015 and a push to ensure employees better understood the complaint process.
“Sadly, all organizations have to deal with the unacceptable problem of discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation,” Ryan said. “I believe what is most important is that we are handling the issues appropriately as they come up and we are taking proactive steps in the form of outreach, presentations and training to prevent them.”
KXAN obtained more than a dozen closed complaint files between January 2017 and March 2018 through open record requests. The allegations include everything from racist remarks to sexual harassment and retaliation:
- An employee at the Nolan Maintenance Center near Abilene alleged a superior used racial slurs against Hispanic and African-American people. One supervisor allegedly asked a female worker about her genitals, "grabbed the butt of" a female employee, and said Mexican workers were “taking up all the benefits” and coming here to “have a bunch of kids and figure the system out,” among other racist remarks.
- In Denton, an employee alleged a male coworker made sexual advances toward her, discussed his sex life and showed her “a pornographic movie.”
- At a Leakey location, a worker alleged a supervisor treated several Hispanic workers unfairly, denied them educational opportunities and made racist remarks about them, such as calling them “nothing but thieves” and “baby makers with no fathers or family ties."
KXAN reviewed all complaints and resolutions during that time period and found that in some cases employees received more training and reminders about professional standards. Some employees received a written reprimand, probation, transfer or termination, according to agency records. But, with the majority of those complaints, TxDOT investigated and took no disciplinary action.
“Women, minorities especially, are saying, ‘We won’t accept racist behavior and write it off as a joke. We won’t accept sexual harassment and write it off as a joke,’” Israel said after reviewing the complaints. “It’s not a joke. We have to take it seriously, so I’m angry that these individuals are being treated this way.”
“I was horrified when I read a lot of them,” Thompson said. "I was saddened. I was disappointed, and I was very hurt that those persons had to endure that in order to work at an agency."
TxDOT’s situation could be improved if its workforce better reflected state demographics, said Israel, who worked in recruiting in former Gov. Ann Richards’ administration.
“In 1990, when I worked for the governor, diversity was a given. It was an expectation. It was a promise made, and we delivered on that promise,” Israel said. “We had regional, ethnic, gender, racial diversity.”
In a February meeting of the House Transportation Committee, which monitors TxDOT, Israel questioned Bass on TxDOT’s demographics.
“The last time I checked your organizational chart, I don’t recall, aside from a new female commissioner, that you surround yourself with smart women,” Israel said. “In this day and age, to have your executive team be so non-diverse is striking.”
In addition to complaints, since 2010 TxDOT has been sued more than two dozen times on grounds of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Saldana’s case was one of them. She said a lawsuit against a major state agency is an uphill battle. After a year and a half, she said she stopped pursuing her case after her attorney became sick. TxDOT said it was dismissed "entirely by the courts."
By the time someone sues an agency, they have either quit their job or been terminated, Saldana said. A plaintiff’s financial resources are often limited, and attorneys are expensive.
“They know that their power and their resources are more than you,” Saldana said. “And the cycle just keeps continuing. It just keeps continuing.”
Ben Friberg, Sarah Rafique, Ricardo Ruano & Chris Stelly contributed to this report.