AUSTIN (KXAN) — Remona Kruse wasn’t sure what to do when she says a male superior at work looked at her inappropriately and said things like, “I am a man, I can stare at whatever,” and “I am just looking.”
Those claims are documented in an email from human resources following a sexual harassment complaint Kruse filed with the Texas Department of Transportation's Equal Employment Opportunity division earlier this year. But, she said, nothing changed, and that’s what led her to quit her job in the agency's Support Services Division this month.
“I didn't have anywhere to go,” Kruse said. “It's simple as that, and I'm sure other women feel the same as I do.”
In May, KXAN revealed more than 200 allegations of workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation over the last five years at TxDOT. A bulk of those complaints come from women, who make up just 22 percent of TxDOT’s workforce, compared to the state’s total workforce which is comprised of about 47 percent women.
“You shouldn't treat women like that but again, I clearly wasn't important, you know, I'm only 22 percent,” Kruse said.
On Monday, a TxDOT spokesperson said “it would be premature” to comment on Kruse’s allegations. And, the agency says, it has been making strides in its EEO complaint process since 2015, adding that only 19 of the 49 reported allegations of harassment, discrimination and/or retaliation were substantiated last year.
A legislative audit prompted the agency to improve its complaint process, add a division within human resources to address those types of complaints and update its policies, procedures and process for filing complaints.
Members of the Texas House Transportation Committee have taken interest in our investigation and we’ve continued to stay in touch with them on this issue.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, sits on both the House Sunset and transportation panels, which are tasked with oversight of TxDOT and make decisions that could affect the agency’s budget in the upcoming legislative session.
After reading some of the internal TxDOT complaints from our initial investigation, Thompson said she was “horrified.”
"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,” she told KXAN this spring.
TxDOT has seen a wave of complaints since KXAN’s investigation into allegations of harassment and discrimination aired in May. Before our initial report, TxDOT had 29 official allegations of discrimination, harassment based on protected class, sexual harassment and retaliation as of mid-April for the current fiscal year. Within a three-month period, that number nearly doubled to 52 total allegations — an amount on track to exceed the agency's recent yearly totals.
“If we are seeing an increase in people coming forward – we view that as a positive sign,” TxDOT said in a statement to KXAN. “It means that since 2015 we have been creating a culture in which our team feels comfortable bringing concerns to their supervisors."
After watching our investigation and hearing from other women who detailed their experiences, Kruse said she realized she wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable at work.
“The newscast brought ... it to light again,” Kruse said. “As soon as I saw that, I said, ‘Oh wow, I had no idea that this was actually going on and this happened to other people,’ so it brought a lot of awareness, so I'm hopeful that people will come forward.”
Employee awareness after KXAN investigation
Within a week of the investigation, Kruse said two anti-discrimination and anti-harassment posters were posted on the walls of her office.
Kruse shared photos of the posters with KXAN. They feature a man with a note that says, “You don’t have to be silent” in all caps covering his mouth. At the bottom of the flier, it says TxDOT is “committed to providing safe working environments for all employees.”
It encourages anyone who has endured or witnessed “physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening behavior in the workplace,” to contact Human Resources or their supervisor.
“I think that they don’t do anything for prevention, because if they would have, they would have taken care of my issue, instead of me having to come [to KXAN], just like those other women,” Kruse said.
Soon after our investigation, TxDOT executive director James Bass also addressed employees in a video posted to YouTube on July 9.
“Those reports were hard to hear because they made it sound like the department failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves and that perhaps some thought we fail to provide an inclusive atmosphere where everyone can work and contribute,” Bass said in the video. “But as difficult as those reports were to hear, I look at them as an opportunity – an opportunity to help our workforce better reflect the people we serve.”
The video had about 2,500 views as of Tuesday afternoon. The total TxDOT workforce is made up of nearly 12,000 employees.
TxDOT Executive Director James Bass addresses employees
Of the total workforce, the agency says it has averaged about 44 complaints of discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation annually over the last three years – that's less than one percent of the workforce.
“We track all allegations and take each one seriously,” TxDOT said in a statement.
Allegations and complaints since 2017 span TxDOT districts across the state. In Denton, an employee alleged a male co-worker showed her a “pornographic movie.” There were no witnesses to the incident since it occurred when the two were alone. Because of that, TxDOT said the allegations "could not be verified" and no disciplinary action was taken, according to internal documents.
Last year, a woman in the Abilene district alleged she was groped and faced inappropriate comments from co-workers. In her case, an employee was terminated and another was involuntarily transferred, according to TxDOT.
In Waco, a woman working in TxDOT's maintenance section alleged she endured inappropriate behavior from a supervisor and male colleagues during morning stretches aimed at preventing workplace injury, according to internal TxDOT documents. The woman told TxDOT one of the stretches involved bending over and touching your toes. They called it "the promotion," she said.
In recent years, TxDOT says it has launched a “comprehensive educational push” to make sure new and existing employees know how to file complaints, as well as the importance of treating others with “respect and dignity.”
“Sadly, many organizations have to deal with the unacceptable problem of discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation,” TxDOT said in a statement to KXAN. “We are focused on fostering an environment where employees know that discrimination, harassment and retaliation will not be tolerated as well as one where employees feel comfortable bringing their concerns to our department.”
The same day KXAN asked TxDOT about Kruse’s case, the agency’s compliance division reached out to her saying it was investigating her case from a compliance standpoint and would like her help in the process.
But, despite the agency’s efforts, Kruse said more needs to be done to ensure employees at TxDOT feel like their concerns are heard and they have a comfortable, safe working environment.
“This is a culture that is accepted there,” Kruse said. “They know it, they continue to do it and there's nothing that you're going to do basically to stop them.”