How San Jose lawmaker’s bill could curb workplace violence
An employee of a Willow Glen Safeway was fatally shot while trying to stop shoplifters last year. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Manuel Huizar, a 24-year-old San Jose Safeway employee, was fatally shot by shoplifters last year. In April, Home Depot employee Blake Mohs, 26, was shot and killed while attempting to stop a robbery in Pleasanton. In May 2021, nine people were fatally shot by a transit worker at San Jose’s VTA rail yard. It was the deadliest mass shooting in the South Bay.

    As workplace violence has escalated, one California legislator wants to ensure workers are better protected and trained to handle these situations.

    State Sen. Dave Cortese authored Senate Bill 553 to establish workplace violence prevention standards. It prohibits employers from forcing workers to confront shoplifters and requires employers to provide shooter training and shoplifter training to prevent workplace assaults. The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday and is headed to the Assembly.

    “You can’t require rank and file employees, like a courtesy clerk in a grocery store, a bagger, a produce manager, to also be responsible for security and tackle people that are shoplifting,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “That’s not all right and that’s getting people killed.”

    SB 553 also calls for a wellness referral system. If a colleague appears to be acting erratic or making threats, and a worker informs an employer of this behavior, the employer should refer that person to a wellness center, Cortese said.

    John Courtney, president of ATU Local 285, VTA’s largest union, said Santa Clara County didn’t have the resources in place it does now. After the mass shooting, a bill co-authored by Cortese and Assemblymember Ash Kalra was passed to provide $20 million for VTA worker support, including mental health services, employee training and trauma counseling.

    “The resiliency center, it definitely gives you another place where you can go to… for whatever reason, including (if someone’s) on the brink of committing a horrific crime,” he told San José Spotlight. “Hopefully, it will be a mandatory thing employers in the public sector will have to implement.”

    Courtney said VTA’s report on the shooting incorrectly stated nobody could have predicted what happened, but more should’ve been done.

    “There were some things that we certainly know that the employer knew about in regards to the individual,” he told San José Spotlight. “There were warning signs.”

    Cortese wants the bill to require employers to make wellness center referrals as needed in California due to the epidemic of behavioral health crises.

    “When somebody’s triggered and has a mental health issue, especially if it’s a significant one, the most important thing we can do for everybody, including that individual… is give them help right away,” he said. “That’s how we can turn the tide on both violence and significant outbreaks of mental health issues that we’re seeing.”

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cites workplace violence as the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury. The agency estimates that workplace violence affects nearly 2 million workers annually.

    “All businesses public or private sector have to have a violence prevention plan,” Cortese said. “We want logs of any violence that occurs during the course of the year, and we want those logs reviewed annually.”

    Cortese said the California Chamber of Commerce objected to additional costs that might be needed for security personnel and wanted to wait for OSHA to update its 2017 workforce requirements. Cortese said OSHA’s standards only applied to the health care industry and he doesn’t want to delay while the agency is working on standards for other industries. The chamber also asked if small businesses would have to comply. Cortese said some exemptions will be forthcoming.

    “Every day that goes by, we seem to see more workplace violence,” he said. “As a legislature, we have the power to do this right now.”

    Editor’s Note: a previous version of this story included a lower amount of money for VTA worker support.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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