San Jose VTA records show IT supervisor had prior complaints
VTA headquarters on North First Street in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Complaints about the behavior of a supervisor in VTA’s information technology department started appearing just months after he began working there, according to internal records.

    Records obtained by San José Spotlight show that in 2019, three employees complained about a supervisor, Kenneth Blackwell, shortly after he joined the department. The complaints alleged his behavior was aggressive and intimidating. Two of those employees left VTA, and their union attributed their departure to interactions with Blackwell, according to the records.

    SEIU Local 521 documented the complaints in a grievance it filed with VTA. The union represents more than 250 workers at VTA. The grievance was discussed in a hearing involving a VTA hearing officer, SEIU union reps, Blackwell and his manager Richard Bertalan. The hearing officer denied the grievance, according to the records.

    Last week, about 30 workers in VTA’s technology department submitted a petition to the agency’s board complaining about harassment and demanding that the transit agency initiate an investigation into a toxic work culture. The petition did not mention Blackwell, but screenshots shared with San José Spotlight from recent virtual town hall meetings for VTA workers showed several complaints about him.

    Blackwell did not respond to a request for comment. A representative for SEIU declined comment. VTA officials told San José Spotlight they will not comment on personnel matters.

    “An independent investigation is being conducted by a third party that involves a comprehensive look at the issues raised,” a VTA spokesperson said in an email.

    According to the records from 2019, multiple employees in the technology department said Blackwell raised his voice at them and spoke in a manner that made them uncomfortable. There was also a general complaint about Blackwell changing work hours of his employees without first discussing it with them and following the correct procedure.

    One employee felt bullied by Blackwell, who he said micromanaged him on a daily basis, records show. A second individual said that when he announced he wanted to retire, Blackwell took away his employee badge and notified the human resources department, causing his badge and work email to be deactivated prematurely. He also said he was escorted out of the building on his last day.

    San José Spotlight was unable to reach the individuals named in the records.

    The union asserted in its grievance that VTA violated its collective bargaining agreement by not promoting a harmonious work environment for employees. It also alleged that VTA violated the agreement when management discussed unilaterally altering employee schedules.

    According to the records, the VTA hearing officer noted that Blackwell had a different management style than his predecessor. But the officer said it was not clear how this constituted a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. The officer also observed that none of the employees were present during the hearing to provide testimony.

    The officer also noted that as a new employee, Blackwell was still learning about the nuances of the workplace. The officer said that the union and VTA met prior to the hearing to resolve many of the issues concerning allegations of intimidating, accusatory and bullying behavior.

    Last week, after workers in the IT department submitted their petition to the VTA board of directors, the transit agency stated it’s investigating the allegations through a third-party.

    An individual with knowledge of the IT department told San José Spotlight they were not surprised Blackwell has prior complaints against him.

    “He’s affected a lot of people,” they said.

    The individual, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said workers have filed complaints about management, including with the Office of Civil Rights, but failed to see any action. 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.”

    Multiple VTA employees who spoke with San José Spotlight said the issue of toxic work culture extends beyond the IT department.

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

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