Can San Jose’s VTA fix its broken work culture?
A rider exits the light rail train at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose in this file photo.

In the wake of the mass shooting at a train yard in downtown San Jose last May, VTA officials promised to improve work culture to make life easier for employees. But after a year, workers say little has changed and they’re not hopeful about the future.

VTA employees started publicly complaining about a toxic work culture shortly after the May 26, 2021 shooting that left nine employees dead, in addition to the shooter—a disgruntled worker. Since then, San José Spotlight has uncovered stories of toxic work culture in multiple departments that in some cases have been festering for years. VTA officials appear to have initiated at least one internal investigation and are in the process of hiring a consultant to help change the agency’s work environment.

San José Spotlight spoke with six VTA employees about the state of the public transit agency’s work culture one year after the shooting. The workers—who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation—complained about a disconnect between frontline staff and management; harassment and excessive discipline meted out by supervisors; the ineffectiveness of human resources and the Office of Civil Rights at addressing complaints and uneasiness about physical safety.

They said VTA’s decision to fire workers who don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 has contributed to a steep decline in morale across the agency. Several said they are disappointed VTA didn’t give workers the day off to mourn their fallen colleagues.

“There’s a lot of tension right now,” said one worker who lost friends in the shooting. “It’s just terrible.”

Rebuilding VTA

VTA General Manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot told San José Spotlight the agency’s goal has been to stabilize itself following the shooting and a major cyber attack that took place last spring.

“The focus is to strengthen the underpinnings so that the agency can move forward,” Gonot said.

To that end, Gonot said VTA pursued urgent initiatives, such as restoring light rail service and re-establishing its workforce development programs. The agency also approved contracts with its four unions.

Gonot said a joint labor-management committee also helped achieve several mental health projects using funds from the $20 million raised for the agency through Senate Bill 129. As examples, she cited the creation of the 526 Resiliency Center, which provides outpatient treatment for VTA employees and families affected by the shooting, and the implementation of paid mental health days for workers.

Gonot added VTA now has a 95% vaccination rate for its workers, which helps protect employees and passengers. She said all disciplinary hearings for unvaccinated workers will be held after May.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who serves as chair of the VTA board of directors, credits the agency with taking several steps to improve work culture following the shooting, but emphasized the need to repair relationships within the agency.

“I think creating a sense of trust and respect among employees is critical,” Jones told San José Spotlight. “Right now, you have employees who don’t feel like they’re being listened to or respected or treated properly, and that needs to change.”

John Courtney, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, said he’s glad mental health experts are helping VTA workers, and he hopes those resources will be sustained into the future. But he’s upset the agency isn’t doing more to protect its workforce—as an example, he noted operators continue to be harassed and assaulted by passengers.

He’s also skeptical the workplace evaluation consultant can enact meaningful change. Courtney objected to VTA and its other union partners choosing Deloitte as the consultant, arguing the agency should have considered other firms that missed the application deadline.

“I think they’re all expecting whoever gets granted this (contract) to have a magic wand, wave it over VTA and everything will be fine,” Courtney told San José Spotlight. “The fact of the matter is it’s going to take real leadership.”

Gonot said it is unfortunate ATU has removed itself from the selection of the consultant, but she hopes the union will engage in efforts to benefit its members. VTA has over 2,100 employees, and roughly 90% are represented by unions. ATU has the most members with more than 1,500.

‘Tightening the noose’

Several workers said they’ve been experiencing stress because managers nitpick their performance and appear to be looking for reasons to punish them for minor infractions, such as eating or drinking in the train cab. One light rail operator said the tension between operators and management has grown worse since the shooting.

“It just seems like they’re kind of tightening the noose around our neck constantly,” the operator said.

Employees said they’re also frustrated by the process for filing workplace complaints. According to data obtained by San José Spotlight, 129 complaints were filed with the Office of Civil Rights last year. Of the 82 closed, only seven were substantiated.

One worker who has filed several complaints said the office rarely supports employees, and often refers complaints to the management team of a department. The worker said this is a flawed process because many complaints are about managers.

“Not only are you not going to resolve the issue, now you’ve just upset the person you’re complaining about,” the worker told San José Spotlight. “Now you know there’s going to be some sort of retaliation.”

Another worker, who has filed complaints that went nowhere, told San José Spotlight they wish Gonot and the board of directors would give this issue more attention.

“I would hope they’d take complaints against staff and management more seriously, instead of brushing them aside and having these complaints get lost in the many levels of bureaucracy,” the worker said, adding some positive changes have occurred in their department, like managers being less aggressive with staff.

Several workers said it’s difficult to feel safe at work. They shared examples of friends who were assaulted by passengers on the job, and the perceived lack of security measures around parts of the Guadalupe Light Rail Yard where the mass shooting happened. One employee who lost several friends in the shooting last year said he worries about a repeat of that incident every time he goes to work.

“I think about my coworkers that passed in the shooting and in my mind I think, ‘When is this going to happen again?’” the worker said.

Workers said VTA’s leaders could improve conditions by being more transparent about its decision-making process and reforming the procedure for filing complaints. But several said they’ve seen so little change over the past year they’re not holding their breath for things getting better going forward.

“I feel like there’s really deep issues here and nobody wants to address them,” one worker told San José Spotlight.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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