Spike in employee complaints at Santa Clara County transit agency
A VTA bus is pictured at Diridon Station in this file photo.

Amid a surge in civil rights complaints, VTA is taking applications from consultants to study how to transform the agency’s workplace culture.

Data received by San José Spotlight shows 129 complaints have been filed with VTA’s Office of Civil Rights as of Dec. 9. That is significantly higher compared to last year, when employees filed 76 complaints.

Of the 82 cases filed and closed this year, only seven were substantiated. Last year, only 11 complaints were substantiated. Complaints include allegations about harassment, retaliation, workplace violence, discrimination and safety.

VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross said the agency holds trainings on a regular basis for employees, including on workplace harassment. Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight she couldn’t speak to a specific reason for the increase in complaints. She stressed that VTA encourages employees to reach out to the Office of Civil Rights if they have problems.

“Moving forward, we’re very hopeful and optimistic we’re going to make some serious changes in our workplace environment,” she said.

Last week VTA issued a request for proposals for a consultant to help make significant and meaningful changes in the agency’s workplace culture. It’s unclear how much the consultant will cost.

A statement from the public transit agency specifically cites the mass shooting in May that killed nine workers, and a tenth who died by suicide months later after suffering extreme trauma.

“In the ensuing months, employee feedback alluded to the need to review structural issues not directly connected to the shooting but said to affect the experience of working at VTA,” the statement said.

Questions about VTA’s work culture quickly surfaced after the shooting in May. Workers in the IT Department asked for an external investigation into an alleged hostile work environment. San José Spotlight obtained records showing employees complained repeatedly about a supervisor which didn’t result in disciplinary action. A similar pattern of abusive behavior occurred among fare inspectors, and complaints have popped up in other departments.

The request for proposal makes it clear the agency’s problems run deeper. It notes that VTA’s workforce has suffered multiple crises, starting with the COVID pandemic in early 2020, followed by a cyber-attack and then the shooting. It also cites long-standing and previously known structural problems the board of directors is already addressing.

VTA plans to make internal structural changes using funds from a $20 million initiative created by state Sen. Dave Cortese.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, recently elected as VTA’s board chair, told San José Spotlight the agency has received feedback from employees that needs to be addressed.

“If they feel that the culture and the environment are not conducive to a productive and harmonious workplace, then we have to take that seriously,” he said.

Asked about the spike in complaints to the Office of Civil Rights, Jones said it could be a shift in behavior.

“If our employees feel more empowered and they feel less intimidated to reach out and file complaints, or notifying management of workplace issues, then to me that’s a positive,” he said.

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, told San José Spotlight he hopes the consultant will focus on whether VTA employees are able to safely and effectively do their jobs. They also should look at the uptick in complaints to the Office of Civil Rights, he added.

“When the number of complaints doubles, that is absolutely something that a consultant needs to look at,” Bradley said.

A VTA worker told San José Spotlight many employees are skeptical of the Office of Civil Rights. The worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, said they have complained to the office about personnel issues and nothing was done.

“It’s just like a merry-go-round—we’re just going in circles,” the worker said. “We complain and nothing happens.”

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

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