Lawmaker wants answers: Why did TxDOT provide $8.3M in hazard pay at start of pandemic?

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – When Texas lawmakers convene at the Capitol in January, at least one of them will be hunting for answers as to why the Texas Department of Transportation spent $8.3 million on hazard pay during the first months of the pandemic.

The spending started on March 13, the same day Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster proclamation in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That day, TxDOT implemented raises for what an agency spokesperson called the state’s “other heroes:” TxDOT’s front-line workers.

Those raises came in the form of $5-per-hour hazard duty payments for more than 7,600 workers, totaling over $1.3 million per week, according to TxDOT. For perspective, a year earlier, in the month of January 2019, the agency paid a total of $437 in bridge inspection hazard pay to two employees.

KXAN found hazard pay specifically provided for hazards related to the pandemic is rare throughout state government. We checked with more than a half dozen of Texas’ largest state agencies, including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Health and Human Services Commission. None offered hazard pay specifically for dangers presented by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“I don’t know of any other state agency that provided hazard pay like this,” said State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler. Schaefer said he was told in May that TxDOT was paying employees hazard pay and worked with the Texas Accountability Project, a conservative advocacy group in the Texas House, to investigate.

Schaefer, a member of the House Appropriations Committee which is responsible for allocating funds for state agencies, immediately asked TxDOT whether the rumor was true.

It was.

“Nobody had heard about it. I’d actually talked to other members of the committee who had not heard about it, so it was done very, very quietly — which makes me wonder what the true purpose of it was,” Schaefer said.

The May 22 TXDOT email confirming more than $8 million in hazardous duty pay for more than 7,000 employees.
The May 22 TXDOT email confirming more than $8 million in hazardous duty pay for more than 7,000 employees.

According to emails provided to KXAN, TxDOT confirmed the hazard payments to Schaefer on May 22. TxDOT went on to spend another $140,000 after Schaefer asked about the spending. A little more than a week later, TxDOT stopped the payments, according to TxDOT and public records obtained by KXAN.

TxDOT said the payments stopped on June 1 to coincide with Abbott’s reopening plans laid out in his pandemic-related executive orders.

“Our decision to additionally compensate our state’s ‘other’ heroes was made because we knew they would be on the frontline, interacting with others to ensure our main transportation corridors were operational,” said TxDOT spokesperson Veronica Beyer. “We always knew that this additional compensation would be for a limited duration.”

But, just as TxDOT discontinued its hazard pay, cases of the virus began spiking. On June 1, Texas had about 65,000 total cases of the virus and 2,000 deaths. Two months later, the state had more than 400,000 cases and more than 6,190 fatalities, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Schaefer said he believes his questions about the payments likely led to TxDOT’s decision to stop them.

“If the risk was justified in March, April and May, then the risks should be justified in July,” he said. “Maybe they’ve looked at the rationale behind this and said, ‘It doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t hold up to public scrutiny.’”

“These workers are primarily outdoors. You would start with people who are working in a closed environment like in a prison, not with workers who are primarily outdoors in fresh air able to socially distance,” Schaefer said.

TDCJ, the agency responsible for the state’s prisons, told KXAN it has not provided pandemic-related hazard pay. TDCJ reports 99 of the state’s 106 prisons have at least one case of COVID-19. The agency reported 15,241 inmates and 3,213 employees have tested positive. So far, 14 TDCJ employees have died of coronavirus, with the latest death on July 28, according to the agency.

We asked other large state agencies if their employees were paid pandemic-related hazard duty pay. No other agency we contacted did.

  • TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY AND PROTECTIVE SERVCIES:
    • “No employees are getting hazardous pay.” – Patrick Crimmins, Spokesman  
  • TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICES:
    • “We’re not paying hazard or supplemental pay, and we don’t pay bonuses.” – Chris Van Deusen, Director of Media Relations
  • TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE:
    • “The duties of a Correctional Officer are hazardous by nature. I do not believe there is any additional hazard pay associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is overtime of officers who are working extra shifts to help cover staffing issues at some units. That was true well before the pandemic.” – Jeremy Desel, Director of Communications
  • TEXAS HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES:
    • “Texas HHS does not have statutory authority to compensate employees with hazardous duty pay.” – Christine Mann, Chief Press Officer
  • TEXAS FACILITIES COMMISSION:
    • “Although TFC has authority to make payments for this type of pay, a requirement for this type of pay is that we have state employees in positions that require a commissioned law enforcement officer.  We do not have such positions at TFC. I also verified that there have been no expenditures identified as hazardous duty pay for this Fiscal Year.” – Diane Jackson, Chief Financial Officer
  • TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY:
    • “The department is not paying hazardous pay for work associated with the pandemic.” – Media and Communications Office statement
  • TEXAS ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE COMMISSION:
    • “TABC does not and has not offered hazard pay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of our agents are commissioned peace officers and are entitled to hazard pay under the General Appropriations Act and Government Code. This pay is provided in the normal course of their duties and is not tied to any particular event.” – Chris Porter, Public Information Officer

TxDOT’s payroll records show the largest payout to a single person between March 13 and June 1 was $2,257 for an “Engineering Assistant II.” Half of the $8.3 million went to employees with the following job titles, according to agency records:

General Transportation Technician II$1,451,588.25
General Transportation Technician III$1,274,376.25
General Transportation Specialist I$654,801
Transport Maintenance Crew Chief I$345,041.25
General Engineering Technician I$214,596.25
Source: TXDOT payroll records

Beyer, TxDOT’s spokeswoman, would not schedule an interview with KXAN for this report. In a prepared statement, the agency defended the spending.

“TxDOT employees working the frontlines have done and continue to do an incredible job of keeping our roads open during this declared public health disaster,” Beyer wrote.

“Due to TxDOT employees’ unwavering commitment to continue providing essential services during a time when most were ordered to stay home, many transportation projects across the state moved forward sooner.  Keeping the projects moving saved time, got projects completed sooner, helped limit the disruption of construction and even saved taxpayers money by avoiding additional costs that project stoppage or delays could have created.”

— Veronica Beyer, TxDOT spokeswoman

Beyer provided a list of more than a dozen projects completed during the pandemic. TxDOT included a synopsis of each project, which shows reduced traffic counts during the state’s stay home order as the major contributor to the progress made on the projects.

Schaefer plans to call TxDOT leaders before the appropriations committee to explain the spending next year. 

“When you see businesses being shut down and state government giving raises to employees who are not really at a greater risk than other people in the working world —just doesn’t make sense to me,” Schaefer said.  “When we’re balancing priorities in the state budget on how to use these tax dollars in the middle of an economic crisis, I just don’t understand how any member of the legislature would vote to give hazard pay to TxDOT workers outside and not correctional officers working inside a prison where they actually have serious COVID problems.”

Schaefer said he likely would not have voted to approve this spending had it come before his committee.

“I think if that kind of money is available, I think we would have weighed who was most in need of that money and I think we would have started somewhere like our prisons and correctional officers who are in a closed environment that they have no choice but to be there and keep the public safe.”

“If Matt Schaefer has the wrong perspective on this, then I’d like to know that. I want to hear from them in a public setting and we’ll see what happens,” Schaefer said.  

Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Photographer Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle and the staff of Nexstar sister station KETK in Tyler contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

More Austin-Travis County News

More Investigations

More Investigations

Latest Central Texas COVID-19 Cases

More Coronavirus Live Blogs

Trending Stories

Don't Miss