San Jose transit agency investigating toxic culture, workers say
A rider exits the light rail train at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose in this file photo.

    Allegations about toxic work culture are surfacing again at VTA—this time in its customer service department.

    Current and former VTA workers told San José Spotlight a customer service manager, Combiz Khatiblou, was put on paid administrative leave last month and that an investigation is pending. Current and former employees claim Khatiblou contributed to a hostile work environment in the department, including verbally abusing and threatening workers. Sources said VTA failed to act on complaints about his behavior for months.

    “In an organization that had a workplace shooting, it just kind of baffles me that something like this can be gaslighted and ignored and minimized,” Cody Kraatz, a former employee of the department, told San José Spotlight.

    VTA has been under pressure to improve its work culture ever since last May when a disgruntled worker shot and killed nine employees. Last August, IT workers demanded the agency hire a third-party investigator to look into managers who were allegedly bullying and harassing staff. Records showed one IT supervisor had a history of similar grievances. That same month, San José Spotlight obtained records showing fare inspectors have filed numerous complaints about management contributing to a hostile work environment.

    Earlier this week, Kraatz sent a letter to the VTA board of directors requesting it not only investigate Khatiblou, but also Jim Lawson, chief of external affairs. Kraatz claims Lawson has been aware of complaints about Khatiblou and taken no action.

    Khatiblou could not be reached for comment. VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight the agency doesn’t discuss personnel issues publicly. Lawson did not respond to a request for comment.

    A well-known problem

    A VTA employee who works in the department told San José Spotlight the stress of working under Khatiblou has taken a serious toll on some employees.

    “My mental health has been affected,” said the employee, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. The individual also struggles with depression and trouble sleeping. “I feel I have been abused, and it’s not easy to go and tell on that person.”

    Officials with Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents VTA’s frontline workers including customer service employees, criticized VTA for failing to provide adequate mental health resources after a union member died by suicide. VTA is in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate its work culture and offer solutions.

    John Courtney, president and business agent of ATU Local 285, told San José Spotlight the customer service department has a history of friction between workers and management. He said there were expectations Khatiblou would take things in a different direction when he was hired in early 2020, but that did not happen.

    “None of the previous behaviors were being fixed by having new supervision—in fact, some would say they were getting worse,” Courtney said.

    Multiple complaints

    San José Spotlight obtained emails and a complaint sent to VTA’s Office of Civil Rights that show a pattern of grievances about Khatiblou’s behavior, which claim he isolated workers he disliked.

    Kraatz, who worked at VTA for nearly eight years before leaving in March 2021, said Khatiblou yelled at and belittled him, made unfounded accusations in disciplinary documents and forced him to come into the office during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in violation of a county health order that required employers to grant remote work when available.

    Kraatz filed one complaint in September 2020 and repeatedly emailed the office with updates whenever Khatiblou mistreated him. Kraatz said his complaint didn’t go anywhere because it didn’t relate to civil rights, but he believes the issues he raised should have been addressed because they caused him serious emotional distress.

    According to records obtained by San José Spotlight, civil rights complaints surged at VTA last year. Workers filed 129 complaints in 2021, compared to 76 in 2020. Of the 82 cases closed last year, only seven were substantiated.

    “There’s no avenue inside that organization to address (stuff) that shouldn’t be happening,” Kraatz said. “Apparently it’s not illegal, but it’s just not a good way to run an organization.”

    Other workers said they experienced or witnessed similar behavior. Another customer service worker said they heard Khatiblou scream at employees and saw people leave the department because of his mistreatment. They said some workers have discussed filing complaints, but hesitated.

    “Some of us are reluctant to go that route,” the worker told San José Spotlight, noting there’s no consensus among employees about whether this is the appropriate approach. The worker requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

    In his letter to the VTA board, Kraatz expressed hope officials will take action that can lead to meaningful change in the department.

    “The public deserves better management and leadership than Jim (Lawson) or Combiz (Khatiblou) can provide, especially in a customer-facing department,” Kraatz said.

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

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