Miles to go: Harassment and discrimination complaints rise at TxDOT

Investigations

Some workers criticize hiring, treatment of minorities two years after agency promised change

AUSTIN (KXAN) – For years, one Texas Department of Transportation employee said he’s heard racial jokes and derogatory comments thrown around casually at the San Angelo district headquarters.

“These comments were said throughout the day. They’d stand up in your face and tell you, ‘You need to go back to where you came from. You don’t belong here,’” he said.

Several current and former employees asked to remain anonymous as they detailed their experiences working at the state agency to KXAN Investigators. They described jokes about the U.S.-Mexico border and the Ku Klux Klan, escalating to slurs about Black and Hispanic individuals.

“It makes you feel like you’re not worthy, and all your hard work that you put into that field — it’s a slap in the face,” another employee said. “I love my job. I love it, but it is just certain people who make it impossible for your to do your job.”

The first employee we interviewed said, “I finally got fed up with it and went over the boss’ head and did what I had to do.”

In May 2018, he filed a complaint with the agency’s human resources department, just a few weeks after another KXAN investigation exposed hundreds of harassment complaints from people of color and female employees at TxDOT.

At the time, leaders at the 13,000-employee agency promised to make big changes to how they handled diversity and discrimination. Two years later, KXAN investigators have found the number of harassment allegations and complaints has steadily risen each year.

Complaints and allegations on the rise

David McMillan, the agency’s human resources division director, said TxDOT has been working hard over the last few years to make sure every employee feels valued.

“I think, on the whole, our employees are feeling more and more respected due to this trust, due to the actions we’ve taken, the communications we’ve given and to be proactive. We are going out more and more to the districts and the maintenance divisions to say, ‘We want a very inclusive environment, and we want a very safe and comfortable environment,'” he said. “I feel like any individual that comes up with a complaint, we treat it like if it was my family.”

He said in addition to expanding its outreach programs, it’s tried to offer more avenues for people to file complaints.

According to internal TxDOT documents obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act, 49 complaints were filed in 2017. 

Each formal complaint can contain multiple allegations of harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation. In 2018, 68 complaints were filed, detailing 83 different allegations of this type of conduct.

In 2019, 93 complaints were filed with the agency — a 36% increase from the year before. These complaints contained 138 different allegations.

When KXAN investigators asked McMillan about the spike, he said they believe employees are more willing to report harassment or discrimination than in the past.

“I think it’s due to the individuals being more comfortable, being able to have a venue and a resource to go to,” McMillan said.

KXAN obtained the closed complaint files for complaints made in 2018 and 2019, detailing claims of racist remarks, sexual harassment and unprofessional conduct, including:

  • Use of racial slurs
  • Jokes about being a member of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Statements that Hispanic individuals need to ‘stay on the other side of the border’ and ‘learn English’
  • Explicit pictures drawn of coworkers engaging in a sexual act
  • The discussion of sexual activities in the workplace
  • Inappropriate kissing or touching in the workplace
  • Jokes with sexual innuendos

When asked what happens after complaints like these are filed, McMillan said his office investigates the allegation and takes “the necessary action to stop it.”

Of the 68 complaints filed in 2018, 30 were found to be “substantiated” — meaning 44% of filed complaints resulted in disciplinary action. Of the 93 complaints filed in 2019, only 24 were substantiated — just 25%.

According to outcome data compiled by the agency, more than a dozen substantiated allegations ended with someone on probation. In several of these instances, the person was suspended for a short time. In nearly 20 substantiated allegations, someone was terminated.

Other actions included demotions for supervisors, verbal or written reprimands, coaching sessions and online training. In a few cases, people received verbal or written warnings. In several cases, the person resigned before action could be taken.

The employee who filed a complaint and spoke with KXAN said their incident was substantiated, and TxDOT records reflected that outcome.

The closed complaint file in this case noted, “Multiple employees indicated that there is significant joking within the Section and that conduct sometimes gets out of hand.”

It went on to say, “Using racial slurs (even jokingly) … is inconsistent with Department policy on harassment based on race, color, and/or national origin.”

Records show two people were fired, and a supervisor was demoted. Despite the discipline, the employee said the root problems still exist in the San Angelo district office.

“It did change, but you still hear it. It’s ‘hush-hush,'” they said. “Nobody comes to speak about it because we need our jobs.”

Another San Angelo employee added, “It’s 2020, and nothing has changed.”

The revelation of increasing complaints at TxDOT comes during a time of cultural upheaval in America. For the last two months, protesters have taken to the streets in cities across the country, calling for an end to racial disparities and systematic racism. Meanwhile, Texas and national health data show the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color.

The employees with whom KXAN spoke don’t want their concerns to be forgotten.

“You continue to complain and complain, and you figured you’d see change by now, but you don’t. You feel like you complain for nothing because you are not being heard,” one worker said. “You think, ‘Why? Why are they not listening? Why are they not making change?'”

KXAN investigators began looking into the number of complaints at the agency and conducting interviews before COVID-19 began to spread across the state. Josh Hinkle and Avery Travis discuss the decision to move forward with the investigation during a pandemic and the challenges they faced in their reporting.

Comparing other large state agencies

KXAN looked into complaints at other state agencies in Texas for comparison.

From 2017 to 2019, Texas Department of Agriculture data showed 25 complaints. Their agency employs less than 700 people.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated 27 internal complaints from 2017 until 2019. The majority of these complaints focused on racial discrimination or sexual harassment, but some centered on age, disability or religious discrimination. TCEQ employs 2,690 people.

Meanwhile, the Texas Railroad Commission tracks their complaints over fiscal years. From the fall of 2016 to the present, the agency has investigated just nine complaints. Of those, four were found to be unsubstantiated. That agency employs 840 individuals.

Over a similar fiscal year time frame, the Texas Comptroller’s office, which has 2,900 employees, investigated 14 complaints.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, a much larger agency with more than 10,000 employees, received nearly 400 complaints — 122 in 2017, 135 in 2018, and 141 in 2019.

Texas Health and Human Services records show 565 complaints filed from Fiscal Year 2017 to 2019. It is one of the largest state agencies, with 36,624 people.

In 2017, harassment, sexual harassment, and promotions were the issues most identified by HHSC employees as the reasons for their complaints. In 2018, sexual harassment, hiring and selection, along with performance appraisal, were the main issues identified. In 2019, termination was the more common concern. All three years, race was a component in more than a third of complaints.

(HHSC’s numbers from FY 2017 include complaints from employees at the Department of Family and Protective Services. That was the last year DFPS was a part of the HHSC system.)

Elliott Sprehe, a press officer for HHSC said these allegations are taken “extremely seriously.”

Sprehe added, “The Office of Civil Rights plays an important role in the agency, investigating and responding to complaints, providing training and guidance to HHS staff, conducting periodic compliance reviews and more.”

Complaint Concerns & Hiring Diversity

KXAN Investigators traveled to San Angelo to meet with these TxDOT employees and hear about their concerns.

While the one employee filed a formal complaint, another said they didn’t feel comfortable reporting anything to human resources at their division, feeling conversations weren’t being kept confidential within the office.

“By the time you get to the parking lot, everybody knows about it. People are calling you, ‘Hey, what happened?’ And you are like, ‘How did they know about it?'” they said.

McMillan said confidentiality and trust is important to them, and his office has assigned three more people to travel to the different district offices across the state at least once a year to ensure procedures are being followed.

“They are getting out, doing more facilitated discussions to hear the concerns and to address them,” he said.

A third employee who spoke to KXAN investigators in San Angelo said they felt people of color were passed over for promotions and, in some cases, more harshly disciplined because of their race.

“That’s what hurts the most — knowing that it is still the color thing, it’s what your eyes see. It’s not how you do your job or how good you are at your job. It’s just the color,” they said.

For them, it was too much. They retired.

“I was at the age where I could just pack up and leave and the next day I just said, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do this no more. I’ve lived it so many years, I’m not going to do this again.”

Both that employee and the two current employees that spoke with KXAN were concerned about a lack of representation among the new hires in the office. One argued that most of the employees who were people of color were summer interns, not full-time employees.

Two years ago, TxDOT’s Executive Director James Bass told KXAN his agency was working to strengthen recruiting, seeking “quality applications from both female and minorities. The agency pointed towards efforts recruiting at job fairs, schools and employment organizations targeted for women or people of color.

In KXAN’s most recent interview with McMillan, he reiterated that those efforts were still underway.

“We are constantly looking at different ways to get that diversity inside TxDOT,” he said.

KXAN investigator Avery Travis asked McMillan, “Do you feel, in the last two years, you all have made strides on that?”

McMillan responded: “Yes, I do, based on the data we have, but we are constantly looking to improve.”

According to the agency’s employment data, overall, the number of minority employees has increased slightly. In 2017, Hispanic people made up 26.8% of the TxDOT workforce. Black employees made up 8.3%, and Asian employees made up 3%. By 2020, 27.9% of the workforce was Hispanic, 8.5% was Black, and 3.6% was Hispanic.

However, a closer look reveals the agency is still hiring more white applicants. In 2018, less than half the total applicants were white, but white applicants filled more than half of available spots. In 2019, even less applicants were white, but they made up even more of the new hires than the year before.

Women made up about a third of the applicant pool in 2018 and 2019, but less than a fourth of new hires both years were women.

This all comes after a 2017 legislative audit found TxDOT was falling short of equal opportunity standards for Black, Hispanic and female workers. At the time of KXAN’s last investigation, lawmakers on the state House Transportation Committee — which oversees the agency — were calling for change.

“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,” State Representative Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a 2018 committee hearing. “In this day and age, to have your executive team be so non-diverse is striking.”

Two years later, lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee, tasked with overseeing TxDOT, have taken no action on this issue. We reached out more than a dozen representatives who have rotated onto the committee, to see if there has been an update on TxDOT’s efforts. Many declined to comment. Most never answered.

After KXAN began asking questions, Rep. Israel’s office said they were looking into the issue. We spoke briefly with State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who sat on both the House Sunset and transportation panels two years ago. She noted the Texas Legislative Black Caucus has held several public conversations to address racial injustice in the past few months.

We also reached out to lawmakers in San Angelo about their constituents’ concerns.

Representative Drew Darby said, “As the father of five children, I would like to think that in any employment that they are safe and this type of behavior is not tolerated in the private sector or at any level of government. We need to trust the leadership at TxDOT to be strong and create an environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone.”

Darby said he’d continue to monitor the issue, specifically at the San Angelo District Office.

Back in February of 2020, when we first interviewed the employee who filed the complaint, he said, “It’s not going to change any time soon, not with the people we have there now.”

He said their treatment at the San Angelo district office has always boiled down to the color of their skin.

“I don’t think. I know it does.”

Since then, the employee told KXAN investigators the district had recently hired a new manager. In his opinion, this person has helped changed the culture at the office for the first time in years.

He called it, “a step in the right direction.”

Investigative Photographer Ben Friberg, Investigative Producer/Digital Reporter Anthony Cave, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Senior Investigative Producer/Digital Reporter David Barer and Graphic Artist Rachel Garza contributed to this report.

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

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