San Jose transit agency looks to improve work culture
VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot, board Chair Glenn Hendricks and Dale Austin Jenkins, director of rail operation, at a news conference on Aug. 24. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

As VTA prepares for the end of a year marked by unprecedented tragedy and challenges, the public transit agency is exploring how to change its work culture for the better.

During the VTA’s most recent board meeting, CEO Carolyn Gonot outlined a multi-pronged approach to stabilize and transform the agency after a year marked by a cyber attack, pandemic and mass shooting in May that killed nine workers.

The transit agency plans to hire a consultant next year to collect feedback from workers and examine processes and policies as part of an overall evaluation of VTA’s work culture. The consultant will produce a report to help create programs and initiatives to foster a positive workplace experience.

“The mission is to assess where we need to go to transform our workplace environment,” Gonot said during the meeting.

Questions about VTA’s work culture arose shortly after a mass shooting at its light rail yard on May 26. Records reviewed by San José Spotlight showed the gunman frightened coworkers and refused to follow agency rules without serious consequences. After the shooting, workers in the IT Department demanded an external investigation into an alleged hostile work environment, with employees raising concerns about bullying and harassment.

Records show employees complained repeatedly about one supervisor without the agency taking disciplinary action. San José Spotlight obtained records showing a similar pattern of abusive behavior that took place among fare inspectors, and complaints have also surfaced in the customer service department.

Tensions erupted between VTA and its largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union 265, after an employee who survived the shooting died by suicide. Leaders of the local and national unions blasted VTA for failing to provide mental health support to workers, while the agency accused union officials of making false accusations.

John Courtney, president of ATU Local 265, told San José Spotlight the union is encouraged by the direction being taken by Gonot, and he recognizes things won’t change overnight. But he’s concerned with how long it’s taking to get some resources to workers, such as the money promised for mental health resources.

“Things are a little slower than we had hoped,” he said. “Some of the things we think VTA could do right away are not taking place.”

As an example, he said all workers should receive training for how to deal with an active shooter situation. The agency covers this during orientation with new hires, but he believes it’s necessary for veteran employees, too.

“We are putting a lot of our hope and faith in the new general manager, Carolyn (Gonot), and working with her to that end on the culture change part,” Courtney said. “It just seems everything is slow and bureaucratic, which is unfortunate.”

Bob Nuñez, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP and a former VTA board member, told San José Spotlight he’s spoken with several VTA employees. He says it doesn’t sound like the culture has changed much over the last year.

“This divide between management and union employees is still there,” he said. “So I really see a great need for some type of intervention, and if they’re looking at bringing in outside resources to do that, that’s wonderful.”

Even with the promise of an outside consultant coming in, some VTA workers are skeptical that change is coming. One worker who spoke with San José Spotlight said VTA told light rail operators they would be re-integrated slowly into work as service was restored over the course of several months. But staff shortages have forced some operators to work 10-hour shifts, the worker said. During the board meeting, Gonot said the agency is ramping up its recruitment efforts, but the worker said training operators takes time.

“It’s gotten really crazy and bad,” said the worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “It’s not what they promised.”

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

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