Prince William County’s bus service is putting a planned restructuring on hold, now that some of its employees are claiming that the job cuts associated with the plan may be racially motivated.
Senior managers with the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission were hoping to lay off 12 full-time employees and one part-time staffer, and shift some of the tasks they performed to the commission’s contractor, FirstTransit, Inc. That move could save the commission about $667,000 over the next fiscal year, and PRTC leaders planned to use that money (in part) to create 11 new positions for the bus service, which runs the “OmniRide” and “OmniLink” bus lines in the county.
The group’s Board of Commissioners was set to vote on the plan at its Dec. 7 meeting, but it unanimously voted to defer any consideration of the move until it receives the results of an independent investigation into an anonymous letter sent to the commission alleging a culture of “systemic and institutional racism” at PRTC.
“This toxic work environment of hostility, belittling and blatant discrimination will only end if you, the Board of Commissioners, take a stand against it and send the message that this unfair treatment of any employee of PRTC will not be tolerated,” the letter reads, according to a copy obtained by InsideNoVa.
County Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, and the chairman of the PRTC board, said that the commission plans to contact the county’s equal opportunity and diversity office to investigate those claims. He is hoping to have the results ready by the board’s Feb. 1 meeting, but he noted that he “can’t tell you with any certainty when it will conclude.”
“This is an unfortunate place for all of us to be in,” Principi said. “But in the meantime, we are going to step up our communications and address all these questions.”
In an interview, PRTC Executive Director Robert Schneider also stressed that he is “not discounting” the claims made in the letter and said he “won’t tolerate” any discrimination within the organization.
“We’re open, we’re inclusive and our workforce shows that,” Schneider said. “My business decisions of the past 45 days may be viewed differently if there was something systemic. So now we’re pausing the process to see if something did occur in a systematic way. Because we certainly don’t want future decisions to be viewed through an inappropriate lens.”
In all, Schneider said he is a bit perplexed that he hasn’t heard earlier about the discrimination alleged in the letter, particularly as he has conducted a series of one-on-one meetings with employees since taking the helm as executive director in March.
But the letter accuses Schneider and his staff of fostering a culture of “racial insensitivity” at the organization, as exemplified by the restructuring proposal.
Many of the employees set to be laid off work as “dispatchers,” who assign drivers to buses and track the vehicles’ locations, and the letter notes that “of all the employees being affected by this layoff, all of them are minorities except for one person.”
“Over 150 years of combined transit experience totally discarded,” the letter reads. “The skill set and particular experience needed to successfully dispatch an operation with the challenges specific to this region...cannot be learned overnight.”
But Schneider stressed that the move is simply designed to save the commission money and “centralize” its dispatch operations to ease communications among PRTC’s staff. Currently, some dispatchers work for FirstTransit, while the rest work for PRTC — Schneider’s plan would eliminate all of the PRTC dispatchers, and the contractor would hire several new dispatchers to manage the tasks they once performed.
“We’ve had some redundancy there that was created decades ago,” Schneider said. “And many of the employees that would experience that reduction of force have the chance to go work for FirstTransit.”
Schneider also noted that the new PRTC positions he’s hoping to create would be open to the same dispatchers losing their jobs, as all of them will be advertised internally so he can hire people who already have plenty of experience in the organization.
The new positions Schneider is hoping to add include a chief development officer, chief financial officer and several staffers dedicated to planning and managing data. The letter paints those proposed new staffers as merely “another layer of bureaucracy” created at the expense of jobs held by people of color, but Schneider believes all of those employees would perform analytical functions sorely needed at PRTC.
“These are ground-level, grassroots positions that can be filled by people in this organization,” Schneider said.
Nevertheless, about a dozen current and former employees came to the PRTC board’s Dec. 7 meeting to decry the changes and urged commissioners to reconsider, as did leaders with the Prince William chapter of the NAACP.
“Everyone in business recognizes the need for efficiencies, but much more goes into these decisions than just numbers and dollars,” said the Rev. Cozy Bailey, the group’s president. “There’s a lot of confusion about how this decision was reached, so please review this action and talk to your employees...and come up with something that’s equitable for all sides.”
Schneider is pledging to do just that and said PRTC will wait patiently for the results of the independent investigation before moving forward with the restructuring. While the 13 staffers targeted for cuts were set to be laid off on Jan. 13, Schneider said these allegations have the commission pressing pause on any changes for the immediate future.
“Let’s get someone from outside the commission to look at this information. If it exists, then bring that back to the commission,” Schneider said. “If it does exist, we want to address it.”