San Jose fare inspectors faced hostile work environment, VTA records show
VTA light rail. File photo.

Fare inspectors at VTA complained numerous times about management who contributed to a toxic work culture, including an alleged physical assault on one employee, according to new records obtained by San José Spotlight.

In 2017, a VTA fare inspector filed a workplace violence report that accused a supervisor named Ronald Freeman of intentionally bumping into him as he exited a restroom. Multiple people witnessed the physical contact, according to records, and the inspector claimed this incident was an act of intimidation. The incident was immediately reported to Freeman’s superior, Octavio Garcia, manager of the protective services division.

Just weeks after the incident, Freeman performed a ride check on a train with the same fare inspector and got so close in his personal space that the inspector had trouble moving, records show. Months later, the fare inspector filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights after Freeman allegedly confronted him while he was changing in the locker room.

According to records, the inspector alleged Garcia encouraged the harassment and retaliation. The inspector previously filed a complaint against Garcia after he allegedly threatened to terminate him for refusing to dismiss a ticket citation the worker issued to a rider who contested it.

“I do not feel safe and comfortable at my work place,” the fare inspector wrote in one complaint. “Please help in this matter.”

The allegations of a toxic work culture at Silicon Valley’s largest transit agency are the latest in a string of complaints reported by San José Spotlight that span multiple departments in the wake of the mass shooting at the agency’s rail yard in May. Earlier this month, workers in the IT Department petitioned VTA’s board of directors to investigate managers using harassment and intimidation tactics in their office.

Some unions are escalating tensions with VTA by publicly critiquing the agency for failing its workforce: last week, Amalgamated Transit Union’s national president criticized the transit agency for not addressing the mental health of its employees after a worker who witnessed the mass shooting killed himself shortly after returning to the rail yard. VTA responded with unusually strong language, calling the accusations false.

San José Spotlight in June revealed the gunman frightened coworkers, verbally attacked a colleague and refused to follow company rules — yet his managers praised him and he kept his job for 20 years. The agency’s leaders appeared to blame the union for its disciplinary processes.

In its response to the complaint about the locker room incident, VTA’s Office of Civil Rights stated the alleged actions didn’t violate civil rights policies. The office said it informed upper management to take appropriate steps to ensure a harmonious work environment. According to data received by San José Spotlight, 76 complaints were filed with the Office of Civil Rights in 2020, and only 11 were “substantiated.”

It’s unclear what discipline Freeman may have faced for any of these incidents, based on the records reviewed by San José Spotlight. Several sources with knowledge of these events claim Freeman was not disciplined and that he retained his job for a few more years.

A VTA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on personnel matters, and did not respond to a request for an interview with Garcia. San José Spotlight was unable to reach Freeman, who appears to have left the agency in 2020.

The employee who filed grievances against Freeman is not the only worker to raise concerns about him. Records show that in 2017, a different fare inspector filed a grievance with their union, ATU Local 265, alleging that Freeman used verbally abusive language during a meeting. The worker expressed fear for their personal safety, citing previous incidents.

Records also show that on the same day Freeman allegedly forcefully bumped into an employee outside the restroom, his boss Garcia interviewed multiple fare inspectors for failing to show up to a training session. According to a grievance obtained by San José Spotlight, five workers did not know where at the River Oaks facility the training was being held, and their supervisors didn’t reply to calls and emails seeking clarification. Garcia threatened each inspector with insubordination charges, according to records. The workers claimed they felt management set them up for failure.

Former fare inspectors told San José Spotlight they filed numerous grievances with their union about problems involving their supervisors and manager, which they claim frequently stemmed from a lack of understanding policy and procedure. They requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. ATU Local 265 president John Courtney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One former employee said they filed a grievance after Freeman improperly suspended them for a minor infraction that only warranted a written warning. The former employee claimed they won the grievance and received pay for their suspended days.

Former inspectors said the Office of Civil Rights did not address workplace problems, especially if the complaints concerned their superiors.

“Oh, we filed complaints with OCR and none of them have gone anywhere,” one former inspector told San José Spotlight. “If it was a complaint against management, they never took the complaint seriously.”

Another former inspector said the toxic work environment in the fare compliance department is similar to conditions alleged by workers the IT Department—namely, a hostile work environment marked by aggression and intimidation. The former inspector said working conditions became so bad they took a pay cut to leave the department.

“We didn’t get any help, we didn’t get any assistance,” the former inspector said. “Everything we said was falling on deaf ears.”

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

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