Busses pass in front of 950 Market St. on Jan. 30. 2019. (Ellie Doyen/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Busses pass in front of 950 Market St. on Jan. 30. 2019. (Ellie Doyen/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Bullying, verbal abuse, a ‘culture of silence’: independent investigator makes first report on sexual harassment inside SFMTA

San Francisco’s transportation agency is a haven for bullying and verbal abuse — but there is hope for change.

Those are the conclusions of the first report from Mayor London Breed’s independent “ombudsperson” Dolores Blanding, who in October last year was assigned to investigate an alleged culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni.

Blanding’s appointment by Breed on October 5, 2018 followed a series of stories by the San Francisco Examiner that exposed unresolved complaints from women who were groped by colleagues and, in at least one case, allegedly bullied into sex by a superior.

SEE RELATED: Harassment investigations at SFMTA go nowhere, employees allege

In her report to Breed on January 30, Blanding finally offered a path forward for the SFMTA after meeting with 55-65 of its employees, while also providing a scathing look inside the agency.

“A number of MTA employees and managers described bullying and verbally abusive behavior as being tolerated in the workplace,” she wrote to the Mayor. “It has been described as a culture of silence.”

At a high level, Blanding recommended more training on cultivating a culture of respect, structural changes in the human resource department, making human resources staff “more visible” to the rest of the agency, holding all employees “accountable” for a safe and productive work environment, and more consistent discipline for staff “up to, and including, termination.”

And perhaps her most startling recommendation, sources said, was to make her own job title permanent, and create an independent ombudsperson who could investigate the agency. She did not say that ombudsperson should be herself.

Blanding’s report received wide praise from all involved.

Since the culture of harassment and assault surfaced, more than 70 women inside the agency have banded together to form Muni’s own #MeToo movement, a group called “ChangeSFMTA.”

The women cut across ethnic and class boundaries, from engineers who redesign The City’s streets to bus drivers. In a statement sent to the San Francisco Examiner, the women hailed Blanding’s report and praised the call for a permanent ombudsperson.

“Her recommendations connect dots on some of the SFMTA’s major workplace issues,” the women wrote. They also were pleased that SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin widely shared Blanding’s findings with all SFMTA staff.

Breed herself said Blanding’s report is the “first step” in providing a better workplace for Muni employees, and also referenced her new legislation strengthening training requirements for city employees.

“Harassment and intimidation do not belong anywhere in our city,” she said in a statement.

The Transit Riders group praised Blanding’s report as a “step in the right direction” to fix the “poisonous” culture at SFMTA.

“Change is very much needed at SFMTA if the agency is going to deliver a world-class transportation system,” said Rachel Hyden, the transit riders’ executive director.

Blanding’s six-page report contained detailed recommendations to fix SFMTA’s culture of harassment.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental disconnects is between the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity division and Human Resources, the first of which investigates discrimination complaints and the latter of which handles other types of complaints. The two departments within SFMTA do not communicate effectively, Blanding determined, and she offered recommendations to shore up their work.

Blanding also recommended robust training from the top of SFMTA’s staff on down, including “respectful workplace” training for SFMTA managers and supervisors which began January 29.

But some of the issues she found were far more basic.

Employees Blanding interviewed were largely unaware of how to report issues to the human resources department in the first place, or thought — mistakenly — that they didn’t have human resources “reps” at all. Blanding recommended raising the human resource department’s profile, partly by holding outreach events within SFMTA itself and sending out newsletters, among other methods.

She also recommended human resources host office hours at one of SFMTA’s dozen-or-so Muni yards, which are far from SFMTA headquarters.

SEE RELATED: Muni chief steps down amid growing pressure over harassment allegations

“I believe it would help identify some workplace issues earlier, and knowing their HR office is onsite and seeing a representative increases visibility,” Blanding wrote.

SFMTA has already made some changes in high-level staff. Human Resources Director Don Ellison quietly stopped working at the agency last week, and in October last year SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley retired after he was sued for allegedly groping his assistant.

Reiskin, the agency’s director, said in a statement “I concur with the report’s recommendations and we are already putting some of them in place. Making the agency a truly great place to work is one of our strategic goals and directly connected to our ability to provide outstanding service to the people of San Francisco. Each and every one of our hardworking employees deserves nothing less and I am committed to making this happen as quickly as possible.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

Editor’s note: Reiskin’s statement was added to this story after publication, and the incident of bullying was noted as “alleged” after publication.

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