‘VTA is not a family’: San Jose transit agency seeks help to fix toxic work culture
VTA light rail train. Photo courtesy of VTA.

After weeks of allegations about VTA’s toxic work culture, the agency plans to hire a consultant to figure out how to improve conditions for employees.

The VTA Board of Directors on Thursday moved forward with a referral to look for a consultant who can review VTA’s work culture and find ways to improve the experience of employees. The move comes about three months after a disgruntled worker gunned down nine coworkers before committing suicide.

“We are bringing forward a request that really asks for a labor management partnership to consider culture and climate at VTA, look at what it is today, and how at how to improve that,” said board member Cindy Chavez.

The recommendation noted that VTA’s workforce continues to suffer from both the aftermath of a mass shooting in May but also “long-standing and previously known structural problems.”

“We believe a review of the overall workplace culture and climate would be helpful in determining measures the agency could and should implement to meet the short and long-term employee needs, and increase communication and transparency throughout the organization,” VTA documents say.

It’s unclear how much the consulting work will cost—an important factor considering the agency’s fractured budget due to drops in ridership—or how long it will take.

A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

A history of problems

Many long-standing problems at VTA have surfaced in the wake of the shooting. Last month, IT Department workers submitted a petition to the board demanding a third-party investigation of harassment and bullying by managers. Records obtained by San José Spotlight show a history of discontent across multiple departments, including IT and fare inspecting, where workers have complained about harassment and retaliation from supervisors and managers.

During the board meeting this week, a VTA worker brought up problems in yet another department—customer service.

“The manager has not spoken a single word to me in the last nine months,” said the worker. “VTA is not a family. See something, say something. Well, I’m here speaking out just like many others have done bringing awareness to this issue and the culture within VTA. It’s time for this company to do something about it.”

Numerous workers at VTA have complained that the agency is largely unresponsive to complaints submitted to the Office of Civil Rights, especially if they involve alleged misconduct by high-ranking officials. The office is tasked with handling workplace grievances. Data received by San José Spotlight shows 76 complaints were filed with the Office of Civil Rights in 2020, but only 11 were “substantiated.”

“We reported things to our Office of Civil Rights, but they just brushed things under the carpet,” said one worker who spoke to San José Spotlight on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “They’re very well aware of what’s happening in the company as far as these types of issues.”

The VTA board’s recommendation to hire a consultant cites suggestions from state Sen. Dave Cortese in an August letter to VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot. Cortese, who helped secure $20 million in state funding for VTA following the shooting, said this money should be invested in mental health services for employees and their families and for long-term organizational development.

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.

Cortese said it will take an extraordinary facilitator to bridge the high tensions between VTA management and employee unions, especially the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Union leaders have clashed with VTA management for months leading up to the mass shooting. They’ve squabbled over COVID-19 protections, working conditions, service cuts and a high-profile ransomware attack.

“We can either have an organization that subscribes to the theory of lord of the flies, or subscribes to the theory of reciprocity, of mutuality, of kinship,” Cortese said. “Although there are few organizations that have accomplished that, it’s going to be critical given the epidemic of mental health issues we have out there.”

‘Meaningful action’

The search for a consultant will be led by a joint management-union committee. Since the shooting, ATU leadership has repeatedly accused VTA management of neglecting the mental health of workers, most recently following news that an ATU member who survived the shooting died by suicide.

John Courtney, president of ATU Local 265,  told San José Spotlight the union will be full participants in the process as long as there’s meaningful action, not just rhetoric.

“I know folks at VTA are making announcements about cultural changes,” Courtney said. “But there’s a disconnect from the top to the floor-level managers and mid-level managers. They still squeeze our people.”

VTA did not respond to a request for comment. The agency has previously pushed back against criticism from ATU by citing counseling and other support services offered to employees. Earlier this week, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved establishing a trauma recovery center that would provide immediate assistance to VTA employees and their families.

Grief counseling and trauma care aren’t the only actions VTA workers are demanding. Employees who spoke to San José Spotlight said they’ve been waiting since the shooting to see how the agency will address cultural problems. Multiple workers said if the agency is serious about improving morale, it needs to get rid of abusive managers and supervisors.

“In some departments where people are having issues, replace the managers, or replace the people causing the problems,” said one worker who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “We’re all waiting to see what happens… we all want to see what they’re going to do.”

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

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