Silicon Valley transit agency brings remote workers back to the office
VTA headquarters on North First Street in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    VTA is having its remote workers return to the office—and some say that puts them at risk.

    “We’re not opposed to coming back to the office, we just want to do it in a safe, logical way,” said Tammy Dhanota, a public communications specialist and VTA chapter chair at SEIU Local 521. The union includes VTA’s administrative employees.

    Workers at VTA’s administrative offices, including the River Oaks headquarters on North First Street, will go back on a hybrid schedule starting Tuesday.

    “Hybrid and staggered schedules are yet another way we are trying to support our employees without requiring them to be fully in the office five days a week,” VTA officials said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “Although we believe those working from home remained productive, there is still much to be said about the benefits of in-person collaboration and showing support of 75% of our VTA workforce that could not do their jobs from home.”

    VTA officials said about 300 employees worked from home during the pandemic. About 52% of its total workforce is vaccinated, though it’s not known what percentage of office employees are vaccinated, according to VTA.

    Dhanota said workers in the transportation agency’s finance department returned to the office a few weeks ago. She said the department’s workers needed to go back into the office to fix timecards, many of which were inaccurate following a cyber attack against the agency in April.

    One worker has already tested positive for COVID-19 at the River Oaks office, according to an email sent to employees Monday.

    VTA sent its workers an email on Monday saying an employee tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to the office.

    Dhanota said workers are afraid that bringing people back to the office too early could result in larger outbreaks.

    “Just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID,” Dhanota said. “It really just put a lot of panic in a lot of people in the last 24 to 48 hours.”

    Employees want to retain the right to work remotely, according to Stanley Young, a representative with IFPTE Local 21, the union for VTA’s engineers, architects and cost and schedule coordinators.

    “We’re going to be negotiating that policy with some classifications,” Young said. “It’s flexibility and freedom of choice for our folks.”

    Young said VTA managers and board members work well with the union, and that there should be a way for the transportation agency to allow its employees continue to work remotely.

    “If there’s a way to do it securely, like every other tech company is doing right now… then the transportation agency should also find a way to do that,” Young said. “We’re hoping they’ll be flexible on it.”

    VTA leaders say the agency doesn’t have virtual private network services in place for employees to work securely from home. But Dhanota said that’s not true.

    “The VPN technology was delivered months ago to our River Oaks offices,” she said.

    An agency spokesperson disputed that claim.

    The move to bring employees back into the office works against the region’s sustainability goals, said Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users.

    “This really flies in the face of the climate emergency that they declared,” Bradley said, referring to the Climate Emergency Declaration filed by the agency on Feb. 6, 2020. “The best way for such workers to go safely back to work is to make sure there’s proper bus and light rail service for them to do that.”

    Bradley said the move to have workers return to the office is a slap in the face of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action who pushed for the resolution last year.

    “At least with Google, when they’re encouraging work from the office, they’re bringing their bus service back,” he said.

    Turnout4Transit founder Monica Mallon, who helped pass the resolution along with Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, said she sees both sides of the issue. She said there are benefits to working from home, as well as working alongside one’s peers, and that not all VTA employees have the ability to choose.

    “The operators and the front line workers at VTA have been working and interacting with the public and their coworkers this entire time,” Mallon said. “They put themselves at great risk through the entire pandemic, and now people at River Oaks who have been working from home for a year and a half are complaining about going back to work.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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