Worker complaints keep rolling in at Silicon Valley transit agency
VTA headquarters on North First Street in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Complaints continue to crop up in VTA’s technology department, months after workers demanded an investigation into toxic work culture.

    A VTA manager with a history of run-ins with workers made threatening gestures toward an employee, according to a complaint filed with the agency.

    A complaint submitted to the public transit agency’s Office of Civil Rights last December alleged technology department Manager Kenneth Blackwell made choking motions with his hands to get another worker to stop talking.

    San José Spotlight reviewed the complaint, which described Blackwell interacting with workers at a cubicle. While a worker was speaking, Blackwell raised his hands and held them in a position as if he were “choking” a person and shook them back and forth. The worker stopped speaking, according to the complaint. When they spoke again later in the conversation, Blackwell made the same motion and the worker stopped speaking.

    Blackwell did not respond to a request for comment.

    The complaint, filed by a VTA worker, said employees in the technology department are in a state of fear because of Blackwell’s behavior.

    “Many have tried to say something and all have experienced retaliation if they speak up,” the complaint stated.

    Complaints about Blackwell date back to 2019, when three employees complained about him being aggressive and intimidating. According to records, two employees left VTA and their union SEIU Local 521 attributed the departures to interactions with Blackwell.

    Last August, roughly 30 workers in the technology department submitted a petition to VTA’s board that made allegations about harassment in the department. Screenshots from a virtual meeting shared with San José Spotlight mentioned several complaints about Blackwell. The petitioners demanded VTA get a third party to investigate the department’s work culture.

    “There is no update at this time regarding the third-party investigation,” VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight. She added the agency has no comment regarding personnel issues.

    One worker said they’ve considered filing complaints about Blackwell, but they have no faith these problems will be rectified by the Office of Civil Rights, VTA’s department that handles complaints about discrimination.

    “There’s no mechanism for VTA to address all of this stuff,” the worker told San José Spotlight, noting they’ve seen colleagues file complaints about inappropriate behavior such as yelling, only to see them go nowhere. “That’s not a violation for anything? No way, come on—that’s a hostile environment.”

    According to data from VTA, the Office of Civil Rights received 129 complaints last year—almost double the number filed the year before, when employees filed 76 complaints. Of the 82 cases closed in 2021, only seven were substantiated. Complaints contained allegations about workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, discrimination and safety issues.

    Work culture has been a hot button issue at VTA since last May, when a disgruntled employee killed nine coworkers. The gunman had scared coworkers and refused to follow agency rules, according to records reviewed by San José Spotlight.

    Other records indicate toxic work culture has been a simmering issue in other departments. San José Spotlight reported fare inspectors have filed numerous complaints about mistreatment by management, including an alleged physical assault. Earlier this month, sources reported a manager in the customer service department had been put on paid administrative leave. Sources said the manager contributed to a hostile work environment and VTA failed to act on complaints about this manager for months.

    There are some signs the department is taking steps to address these issues. VTA is in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate the agency’s work culture. VTA will rely on this data to create programs and initiatives to make changes at the agency for the betterment of the workforce.

    Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 President John Courtney told San José Spotlight there should be another way to address complaints that fall outside the scope of the Office of Civil Rights. Courtney, a frequent critic of the agency, said he wants to work with VTA to make things better for workers, but he emphasized there must be improvement on an institutional level.

    “Until these things are cleared up, confidence in the system isn’t going to change,” he said.

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

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