State of Texas: Coronavirus hazard pay at TxDOT scrutinized by state lawmaker

Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – 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, 15 TDCJ employees have died of coronavirus, with the latest death on August 4, 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.

Harassment and discrimination complaints rise at TxDOT

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.

INVESTIGATION: The Long Road to Equality: Hiring and Harassment 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.

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 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.

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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.”

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 Asian.

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.”

GOP lawmakers sue Gov. Abbott over contact tracing contract

Newly-elected Republican Party of Texas Chair Allen West told KXAN he’s “heavily concerned” with a $295 million contact tracing contract that the state awarded to a Frisco-based firm, without approval from the state legislature, which is now the source of a lawsuit facing Gov. Greg Abbott.

In an interview on Thursday, West, who opposed the statewide mask mandate to slow the spread of coronavirus, would not say whether rank-and-file Republicans have lost confidence in Abbott.

He did say, however, that “everyone” should be concerned with how the contract was awarded to MTX Group, Inc.

“You don’t have an executive branch that can go out and write a check without that legislative approval,” West said.

The lawsuit was filed by five Texas Republican lawmakers in Travis County District Court on Monday, claiming Abbott violated competitive bidding laws and separation of power by awarding the contract to MTX Group, Inc.

The lawsuit claims Abbott exceeded the additional power he was granted during the COVID-19 disaster declaration.

“The first reason to invalidate the contract is that DSHS materially failed to follow competitive bidding rules in awarding the Texas-MTX contract,” the lawsuit states. “The second reason to invalidate the contract is that the Texas Constitution requires a separation of powers, and that separation leaves policy-making decisions with the Texas legislature.”

Contact tracing is the process of tracking down individuals for isolation and testing who may have come in contact with someone infected by COVID-19.

The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement calling the contract a “sweetheart” deal between Abbott and MTX Group, Inc.

“Choosing an unqualified COVID-19 contact tracing company on the same day that two Republican megadonors were hired by the company makes the corruption clear as day,” said Abhi Rahman, director of communications for the Texas Democratic Party.

The lawsuit seeks damages of $100,000 or less and “non-monetary relief and all other relief to which they may show themselves entitled.”

“Listen, I’ve been sued too many times for me to count,” Gov. Abbott said Thursday, responding to a reporter’s question about the lawsuit. “Every lawsuit that’s been filed against me… I either won in court or has been dismissed by the courts or by the parties,” Abbott said. “This lawsuit will meet that same exact fate.”

Two vaccines in development show ability to fight COVID-19

Good news in the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine — two U.S.-produced vaccines have now shown they’re capable of producing virus-fighting antigens, as well as T-cells.

One of the vaccines, developed by pharmaceutical company Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, was created thanks to research out of the University of Texas in Austin. It is currently in Phase III of testing.

The newest vaccine is being madeby Novavax, Inc. and is currently in Phase I of testing. 131 people volunteered for a double dose of that vaccine. Participants developed four times as many neutralizing antibodies on average than people who have recovered from COVID-19.

There are over 140 COVID-19 vaccines in development, according to the New York Times. They’re not all made the same.

The Novavax vaccine is a protein-based vaccine. Proteins are the little spiky parts on the coronavirus. In a protein-based vaccine, these are scraped off and used as a base for the solution.

When you are injected with the vaccine, your body learns to fight off these proteins as opposed to having to fight off the whole virus. As a result, the virus can’t enter your cells and get you sick.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, if you’ve had a flu shot, you’ve likely had a protein-based vaccine.

The Moderna vaccine is a genetic vaccine.

Viruses work by teaching our body’s cells to create copies of the virus. Genetic vaccines take this same trick and reverse it. Scientists are able to write code, in this case in the form of DNA or RNA, that teaches your bodies cells to fight off the virus.

A protein-based vaccine is like learning on the job, while a genetic vaccine is like going to school. Both work, but the risks are different.

No genetic vaccine has ever been approved for use on humans, but they’ve been used on animals for decades. Not only could these vaccines be the fastest ever developed, they could be a breakthrough in science as we know it.

When the protein-based Novavax vaccine is ready, the plan is to make the doses in Texas. The federal government plans to use a high-tech biomanufacturing facility at Texas A&M in College Station to mass produce the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Texas A&M’s University System’s Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing was created after the H1N1 pandemic more than a decade ago. The facility is capable of making millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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