An internship program that trains people of color for jobs at the Dane County Highway Department is facing accusations from some workers and union leaders that it’s being mismanaged and discriminates against Black people.
But Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and department management dispute the allegations, which Parisi said the union has been promoting to pit Black and Latino workers against each other.
The county is now conducting an investigation of the Highway Department, making it the newest target of county workplace environment probes after one earlier this year that in part looked into accusations of racism and neglecting animal welfare at the Vilas Zoo.
The internship program, which recruits and trains people of color to earn their commercial driver’s license, has brought diversity to a corner of the county’s workforce that was once over 90% white, according to supporters, highway management and top officials. By getting jobs at the Highway Department after the program, interns have found stable work, self-fulfillment and financial security.
People are also reading…
But some highway workers and the workers union say the program has been mismanaged, specifically by Louis Rodriguez, a near-two-decade highway worker and the program’s longtime instructor.
They claim that millions of dollars have been spent recruiting and hiring workers who can be unprepared for the rigors of highway labor and that Black interns are failing to complete the program more than their Latino counterparts because they aren’t getting equal treatment in the classroom.
Yet according to Highway Department data, a similar number of Black and Latino interns failed to complete the program. Management also disputes other claims made by staff about the diversity initiative.
Documents and interviews with nine current and former highway employees do show a workplace rife with gossip, low morale, racial tensions, animosity toward the 75-year-old Rodriguez and conflicting perceptions about the success of the internship program.
Critics of the program further claim that it doesn’t offer proper skill evaluations and that workers from the program get special treatment.
“I’m not saying they haven’t brought in some good people,” said Chris Reed, a white highway worker who has been employed there for 10 years. “But some really have no interest in doing highway work, or heavy machinery operating, and they just pass them with flying colors.”
Parisi, who helped create the internship program in 2016 to diversify the highway workforce, has defended Rodriguez and called the unsubstantiated claim about Black interns failing the program “race baiting.” The county executive further accused some union leadership of pitting Latino and Black employees against each other and plotting a “character assassination” of Rodriguez.
“An argument can be made that this is a case of retribution against a Latino county employee (Rodriguez) who has served our community for decades and does not deserve to be subject to this type of abuse,” Parisi wrote in an email to the State Journal.
Arlyn Halvorson, a vice president for the union and a highway worker, said the idea that organized labor wants the internship to fail “just isn’t true.”
“We very much want these recruits to succeed,” Halvorson said.
Rodriguez said the program has long faced racist opposition. At its onset, a white highway worker asked him if the interns were illegal immigrants who didn’t speak English, Rodriguez recounted.
“There was a lot of resistance,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “Nobody wanted to have these people of color around.”
Kabura Mukasa, the county human resources manager who is investigating the Highway Department alongside the Office for Equity and Inclusion, declined to say what issues prompted the departmentwide inquiry. But during a previous investigation of racial tensions at the department earlier this year, employees mentioned concerns that have been wrapped into the current investigation, which is common, she said.
Interviews with staff and management for the current probe started in early May and ended in early June, Mukasa said. A final summary of their findings should be finished in the coming weeks.
“The nice thing is everybody was really open and everybody shared their truth,” Mukasa said.
The Highway Department is the latest county workplace where employees have alleged workplace environment concerns. Reports by the Wisconsin State Journal and Wisconsin Watch in recent months detailed mistreatment of staff by management at the Vilas Zoo and Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Parisi and other top officials have blamed the county’s labor union for the recent publicity around those environments. The administration has also defended management at the Medical Examiner’s Office and opposed efforts to conduct an independent investigation of the zoo. The union has said the county has a systemic workplace environment problem that isn’t getting properly addressed.
Allegations in dispute
The Highway Department’s internship program started as a partnership between the county, the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Latino Academy of Workforce Development. All told, nearly two dozen people of color have been hired and retained at the Highway Department because of the program.
The program has a high rate of success. Seventy percent have completed it, and of those, over 90% have been offered highway jobs.
Since 2016, the county has spent $3.6 million paying workers hired out of the program, on top of $815,000 in other costs, such as paying the interns.
Over the years, it has helped people like current intern Kenny Mac, who is Black. Mac said he almost became a trucker before he learned about the program through the Urban League. With a 1-year-old son at home, the program has let him be a part of those all-important early moments in his child’s life.
“If I was on the road, I’d miss all that,” Mac said.
Such testimonials about the internship program are common. Other highway workers who went through the program have paid off their houses and found their first stable full-time employment.
“The only complaints that have ever come to me about the program have been from white (union) members, who opposed and criticized the CDL program from the start,” Parisi said in an email to the State Journal.
But in eight interviews with white and Black employees at the Highway Department, the workers said that while they support the program’s goals of diversifying the department, Black interns don’t make it through the program at the same rate as Latinos.
While the program has had fewer Black interns than Latinos overall, of the 11 people who were removed from the program since 2016, six were Black and five were Latino, according to data provided by Jerry Mandli, the director of the Highway Department.
Eight Black interns and 16 Latino interns have finished the program and gotten Highway Department jobs. Of those, two Black workers did not meet the requirements of a six-month probationary period and another Black worker quit the Highway Department to start a landscaping business, Mandli said.
No Latino employees have failed the probationary period or resigned.
Those cases were all reviewed by Dane County Employee Relations and the Office for Equity and Inclusion. Ruben Anthony, the president of the Urban League, said his organization has not received any complaints about the program.
“With considerable change and growth in diversity, it has created some discomfort for the existing, fairly homogenous workforce that is not accustomed to much change,” Mandli said in an email.
Still, some highway staff insist that Black interns don’t get the same opportunities as Latinos.
Craig Weatherby, a six-year employee of the department who is Black and went through the program in its early years, said Black interns get fewer opportunities to learn by doing things like going on ride-alongs with heavy machinery.
“We’ve already got to deal with racial disparities by the white guys at work. That’s bad enough,” Weatherby said. “Then we have to deal with a lot of the issues between the Black guys and the Hispanic guys. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Other criticism of the program varies from concerns about a lack of structure to poor performance once interns are hired.
All of the staff interviewed said interns don’t get much practical training or undergo formal evaluations. Once they’re hired, some are unprepared yet enjoy favoritism, which puts more work on other staff, the employees said.
“They let them do the stuff that doesn’t involve anything real difficult,” said highway worker Dave Kneip. “The people aren’t the issue. It’s how management is running what they’re being trained for.”
Rodriguez and highway management maintain that interns get instruction in the classroom and in the field. The program has changed in recent years to offer more hands-on training too, they said.
Program materials reviewed by the State Journal show that the curriculum touches on a wide range of highway-related work, from roadway improvements to operating heavy machinery and plowing roads in the wintertime. Rodriguez keeps a daily log of how interns perform. Interns are removed from the program under a three-strikes system for safety violations or not following instructions.
“As the CDL intern candidates complete the program and compete for full-time jobs, they are tested and evaluated the same way as all applicants that are a part of the County Highway hiring process,” Mandli said in an email.
Rodriguez, who’s quick to tell emotional stories about the internship program, sees the complaints as misguided and potentially racist. A small group of highway workers are using some of the less-hardworking recruits to criticize the rest of an otherwise successful program, he said.
“They say … ‘You see that Hispanic or that African American? He’s lazy. He doesn’t know how to do something,’” Rodriguez said. “Talk to the foremen that work with us. In the last two groups (of interns), the foremen fight for the new candidates.”
An earlier probe illustrates the tensions that have grown between Rodriguez and others.
In February, Rodriguez boasted of sabotaging the promotion of another highway worker, Reed, who is white, after Reed discouraged a group of Latino workers from reporting issues to management, according to a summary of the investigation.
Rodriguez allegedly claimed to have connections with county officials and vowed to make sure Reed wouldn’t get the job.
Rodriguez also confronted Reed, calling him names and swearing at him, after Reed went to five Latino employees and asked them individually if they had “narced” to management about an incident with a salt spinner, the investigation found.
Investigators recommended that Reed and Rodriguez face progressive discipline over the incident, Rodriguez for verbally abusing a co-worker and Reed for not following rules about reporting incidents to management and doing something that could be seen as treating co-workers differently based on their race.
Rodriguez also denied that he threatened Reed’s employment, which was contradicted by Reed and another witness, the investigation concluded. Rodriguez eventually apologized to Reed, the investigation said.
“I allowed the things going on to bother me, because it had been building up and building up,” Rodriguez said of the incident. “The thing that got me upset was to go out and tell individuals who don’t have that much experience to go against their supervisor’s directions.”
As the county finalizes its current investigation of the Highway Department, some on the County Board have suggested that the county might have a systemic workplace environment problem.
The Board’s decision to investigate complaints at the zoo, which Parisi opposed, could be a first step in understanding the extent of the program and how to fix it, some supervisors argued before a vote on the zoo investigation.
Board Chair Patrick Miles did not respond to a request for comment on the Highway Department.
In lieu of a zoo investigation, Parisi wants the county to hire an outside agency to make an assessment of the racial climate across the county’s workforce. The board has not taken up that proposal.