Leaders, experts scrutinize TxDOT after harassment investigation

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leaders at the Texas Department of Transportation are under the watchful eye of state lawmakers, following a recent investigation into hiring and harassment concerns within the agency.

An analysis of state workforce data shows, just 22 percent of TxDOT workers are women – a figure that has dropped over the past decade and that was highlighted in the investigation.

It also revealed hundreds of allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation made by TxDOT workers in the past five years statewide.

“If we find an allegation and it gets substantiated, we’re going to deal with it directly,” said TxDOT executive director James Bass. “We want to make sure that we’re maintaining and striving to have a safe and welcoming environment for all of our employees.”

A review of official complaints filed by TxDOT workers since Jan. 1, 2017, shows some complaints resulted in discipline and additional training. But in most cases the agency investigated, there was no action taken.

“We will continue to provide training, presentations and other forms of outreach to get the message across that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated by the department,” said Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, the lone woman on the commission providing oversight of TxDOT. “We will also continue to discipline employees who engage in actions inconsistent with the department’s policy… up to and including termination of employment.”

Ryan further explained:

  • All employees must go through training every two years regarding discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.
  • The agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity team regularly travels and gives presentations to divisions and districts concerning ethics and equal employment opportunity in the workplace.
  • Mandatory postings in each office contain the steps for filing complaints concerning these issues. There are also posters and fliers available concerning those issues.
  • New employee orientation contains a 20-minute presentation that covers discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.

Though TxDOT has increased efforts to address such issues in recent years, some members of the House Transportation Committee are asking whether the agency has made enough progress, including actions by leadership.

“There need to be vast improvements in this area and benchmarks put in place… to stamp out and to eliminate these kind of problems,” said State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who sits on the committee. “If the executive director cannot be able to fulfill these obligations, then he should be able to step down and let someone else take that position who will.”

Public employers, like state agencies, should be held to the same standard as private employers – especially when agencies are led or governed by elected or appointed officials who create rules and laws for workplaces to follow, according to Shirelle Zachery, the human resources manager at Austin HR, a support service for companies across the nation.

“The government puts a lot of these policies in place,” Zachery said. “I think if we… ensure that the government is just as liable to adhere to the laws that they have in place, I think that we’ll be in better shape.”

Austin-based employment attorney Austin Kaplan suggested government employers sometimes fall short when it comes to workers’ allegations and complaints.

“The private sector – in my experience – is far ahead in terms of progressive employment values,” Kaplan said. “I think the state agencies, unfortunately – because it is a little bit of a tougher road to bring lawsuits against the state – I think they kind of hide behind that.”

Kaplan explained public employees have the same rights as private employees regarding these issues, but many never complain or seek legal remedies.

“They have a right to be free from discrimination, they have a right to equal pay and they have a right to be free from harassment,” he said. “I know from personal experience, it’s a long battle. If you don’t fight, you can’t win.”

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