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, 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
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.