EAST PROVIDENCE — As the Rhode Island Department of Transportation faces increased scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of the Washington Bridge closure, union leaders representing hundreds of employees are accusing Director Peter Alviti of cultivating a toxic work environment.
Under Alviti, the department has been plagued by bullying, harassment, and fears of retaliation, the president, vice president, and chief steward of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 400 told the The Boston Globe on Wednesday. And morale at RIDOT is at an all-time low, they said.
“The environment is toxic,” said Brendan Fogarty, the chief steward of the union. “Toxic. That comes from the (Alviti’s) office, and has permeated throughout the building.”
Alviti “makes it seem like we’re all hunky dory, but we’re not,” said union President Denise Robinson. “Staff are struggling to do their job, because they’re overloaded.”
Pay is already low compared to neighboring states, which, together with difficult working conditions, makes it difficult for RIDOT to attract and retain talent, the union leaders said. On another subject, the union has fought what they see as the privatization of work for a long time, even before Alviti, but they take issue with what they see as the increasing reliance on contractors for tasks like inspections instead of having internal staff with institutional knowledge do them. The young engineer who discovered the structural deficiencies that led to the emergency closure of the bridge worked for VHB, a contractor.
In an emailed response to a request for comment on this story, Alviti said: “RIDOT is an organization of highly functioning and highly motivated employees with a project management team that has delivered 270 rehabilitated bridges in the last seven years. We’re laser-focused on the work ahead, including addressing the Washington Bridge while keeping residents safe and continuing significant road and bridge repairs across the state.”
The description of RIDOT as dysfunctional comes as the department faces an enormous challenge with the closure of the Washington Bridge westbound in December due to the critical failure of some bridge components. The busy highway bridge carries Interstate 195 westbound over the Seekonk River. At Alviti’s direction, the state quickly opened temporary westbound lanes on the eastbound side of the highway – a totally separate and newer structure – but traffic has remained an issue in surrounding communities. Some days it’s only a little worse than usual. Other days, it’s much worse. The hard part is you’re never sure what sort of day you’re going to get until you’re in it.
After originally estimating the bridge could be repaired in three months, RIDOT now says it might have to replace the entire westbound side, which was built in 1968. That could take one to two years, a federal official said this week.
The three union officials – Robinson, the president; Fogarty, the chief steward; and Andrew Cardillo, the vice president – stressed they were speaking to The Boston Globe in their union capacities, not their personal capacities or their day jobs. The union represents RIDOT workers like engineering technicians, inspectors, and clerks, among many other positions. They have about 330 members, mostly at RIDOT, and a smaller number at the Department of Environmental Management. They said they had no inside knowledge about the particulars around the bridge closure.
“They didn’t share anything with the union,” Robinson said.
But during their interview with the Globe in East Providence, they painted a detailed and starkly negative picture of work at RIDOT. To underscore the point, Fogarty used the example of a memorable video of Alviti a few years ago in which Alviti castigates a person at a public meeting, raising his voice and shaking a finger in the man’s face.
“That’s not a one-off from the director,” Fogarty said of the video. “That’s a management style. That’s how they treat our members.”
Within RIDOT, employees are often threatened, embarrassed, and called out in front of coworkers by managers who get no management training, the union leaders said. People call the union leaders in tears or in mental health crises over what’s happening, they said. In the past few years, two employees have left work in ambulances because of the stress, they added.
“A lot of that stems from them hiring people (for management roles) that are not qualified for the jobs, but (are hired) because they know somebody,” Robinson said.
Fogarty added: “Everybody has an uncle.”
The language Alviti and other managers use can be “atrocious” and unprofessional, Fogarty said. People are afraid to speak out for the fear that they’ll be “exiled to Siberia” — given a job with no work, or sent to work on the other side of the state, adversely affecting their careers. That fear is justified, Robinson said.
“It has happened many times,” she said.
Alviti became director in 2015, originally appointed by then-governor Gina Raimondo and re-appointed by Governor Dan McKee. Alviti recently amassed even more influence when the state General Assembly made him the chair of the board of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, the state’s quasi-government bus agency.
Local 400′s leaders argued that Rhode Island deserved a RIDOT director who is working full time at the job he was hired to do. Alviti was already on the RIPTA board, but he has taken on a more public role at RIPTA meetings as chair. The union leaders said they believe the new role shifted some of Alviti’s focus away from RIDOT.
Though the problems begin in Alviti’s office, they don’t end there, the union officials said.
RIDOT chief of staff John Igliozzi – a former Providence city councilman and potential candidate for attorney general in 2026 – is part of the problem, they said. In past years, many labor relations issues were resolved without escalation. Now things get adversarial, they said, going through legal hoops. RIDOT no longer has its own human resources department, a big part of the problem, they said.
“Getting an answer from him is like pulling teeth,” Robinson said. (Alviti’s statement did not address the union leaders’ accusation against Igliozzi.)
All this has a real-world effect on RIDOT and the work it does, with workers leaving their jobs or afraid to speak out for fear of harming their careers, they said.
Said Cardillo, the union vice president: “The culture has to change.”