Tarrant Public Health a ‘toxic’ workplace, workers tell HR

Tarrant

More than a dozen Tarrant County Public Health employees said Director Vinny Taneja, shown in this 2020 file photo, had a “toxic leadership style.”

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More than a dozen Tarrant County Public Health employees say the “toxic” leadership during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already stressful working conditions, according to records from an internal investigation completed in 2022.

At least 16 current and former employees listed a litany of complaints about their bosses, director Vinny Taneja and deputy director Angela Hagy, in interviews with Tarrant County’s human resources department. Employees said Taneja made threatening phone calls, yelled and cursed at staff, and dismissed staff concerns about their mental health and working conditions, according to a copy of the report released to the Star-Telegram through the Texas Public Information Act.

The review, prepared by the assistant director of Tarrant County’s human resources department and the department’s civil service coordinator, began after a departing employee complained of a “toxic and hostile work environment.”

Human Resources concluded that no laws had been broken, but added that “a large group of current and former employees are deeply unhappy with the Public Health leadership.”

The human resources investigators wanted the county administrator to be aware of the “volume” of complaints about the department’s leadership, and recommended that the county administrator address Taneja and Hagy’s “management style to help rebuild trust between Public Health leadership and staff and to prevent a loss of talent due to the current environment.”

Taneja referred the Star-Telegram to the county’s human resources department, which did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Hagy could not be reached for comment.

Taneja and Hagy denied these and other claims in interviews with investigators, presenting a “starkly different picture” of the department’s work environment, according to the investigation.

Taneja described his management style as democratic, consensus-building and working horizontally, not vertically, with teams. Hagy told investigators she was a “cards on the table” manager. She didn’t have an open-door policy because she expected staff to make appointments, she said, according to the report.

In addition to complaints about their management style, employees also accused Taneja and Hagy of not following established pandemic-response protocols or adhering to training they received before the pandemic started.

One or more employees also reported that staff were asked to give special treatment to VIPs in the county by offering COVID testing and vaccines at people’s homes. The employees also told HR investigators that these requests were usually made on the weekends.

In addition, employees complained that Taneja and Hagy worked remotely during the height of the pandemic while most workers were in the office. In response, Taneja said he worked remotely mostly on Mondays and other days as needed.

Almost every employee interviewed said Taneja had said a variation of “if I go down, you go down,” according to the report. Taneja denied saying this during an interview with the report’s authors.

Employees said Hagy would write emails using only capital letters and “extremely inflammatory language.”

None of the employees interviewed by HR were named in the report because they expressed fears about retaliation.

The investigation, which was never released publicly, began after an employee leaving the public health department in December 2021 complained of “pervasive and persistent bullying.”

Messages left with county administrator Chandler Merritt and with County Judge Tim O’Hare’s spokesperson were not immediately returned. The report was completed in 2022, when Merritt was the assistant county administrator and before O’Hare took office in 2023.

Taneja has led the public health department since 2014. Hagy began working as the department’s deputy director in March 2020.

The stress and immense workload that public health employees described in the HR investigation is part of a nationwide increase in scrutiny of public health departments since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Public health employees and other health care workers have reported being threatened and harassed for doing their jobs in addition to grappling with an incessant workload.

This story was originally published February 5, 2024, 4:18 PM.

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Ciara McCarthy covers health and wellness as part of the Star-Telegram’s Crossroads Lab. She came to Fort Worth after three years in Victoria, Texas, where she worked at the Victoria Advocate. Ciara is focused on equipping people and communities with information they need to make decisions about their lives and well-being. Please reach out with your questions about public health or the health care system. Email [email protected] or call or text 817-203-4391.

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