San Jose VTA workers demand toxic work culture investigation

More than two months after a disgruntled VTA employee's killing spree, a group of VTA workers are demanding the transit agency investigate a hostile work environment they say has been festering for months.   

During a Thursday board meeting, Tammy Dhanota, a representative for SEIU 521, presented a petition on behalf of approximately 30 information technology workers who claim they experience fear, intimidation tactics and harassment from management.   

"Due to the recent events at the Guadalupe yard, VTA can no longer afford to not act on the many grievances and complaints filed against the upper management in the technology department," Dhanota said during the meeting.   

On May 26 a VTA worker murdered nine co-workers at the rail yard. The shooting shook workers, and many feared returning to the workplace. VTA has offered mental health services and delayed the return of the light rail to make sure employees feel safe coming back to work. But according to the petition, the agency is failing to address a harmful work culture brewing in one department.   

Dhanota, who has worked for VTA for 26 years, told San Jose Spotlight the union was aware of the issues in the IT department prior to the petition.   

"We're aware of the growing toxic work culture," she said.   

SEE ALSO: San Jose VTA shooting kills 10, including employee who opened fire

VTA officials told San Jose Spotlight that employees have been under an enormous amount of pressure and unanticipated challenges since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   

"Add to that environment a hard-hitting cyber-attack only to be followed by the horrendous tragedy at our Guadalupe Light Rail Yard that will influence everything we do moving forward," the agency said in an email. "To that extent, the allegations brought forward in the recent petition presented to the VTA Board of Directors is being independently and thoroughly investigated by a third party."   

San Jose Spotlight reviewed the petition, forwarded by an individual with knowledge of the IT department. The petition requests that VTA meet with the employees, who represent about two-thirds of IT workers in the transit agency.   

"This is a formal complaint of harassment that we have been subjected to, and we requested an early and appropriate investigation of this situation--preferably by a third party," the petition reads. "We would like to point out that these repeated instances of harassment have caused us stress and anxiety, and they have caused VTA to lose valuable employees that have been part of our VTA family for many years."   

The individual who shared the petition--who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation--said this is not the first time that workers in the department raised concerns about abusive behavior by a manager.   

Following the shooting at the rail yard in May, VTA held a series of virtual town hall meetings for workers to share questions and concerns with the agency. San Jose Spotlight reviewed screenshots of comments made during the meeting that show workers expressing frustration and fear over the work environment in the IT department.   

"In just (the) past year, IT department has turned into a hostile working environment," wrote one commenter. "Many complaints have been filed through VTA complaint process, however none of them have been addressed and all have been dismissed."   

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Several commenters singled out a specific manager, Kenneth Blackwell. According to the worker who spoke with San Jose Spotlight, Blackwell has a history of yelling at and belittling coworkers. After witnessing Blackwell scream at another worker, the individual filed a complaint with VTA's Office of Civil Rights. The office sent them a letter earlier this year stating that the incident didn't constitute a violation and didn't merit action.   

The office similarly did not act on the majority of complaints it received last year, according to data received by this news organization under a public records request. Of the 76 complaints filed to the Office of Civil Rights in 2020, only 11 were "substantiated."   

The worker shared another complaint filed by a coworker who contacted the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing about how Blackwell allegedly harassed people and committed age discrimination. The document alleges that workers have filed numerous other complaints with management, which VTA's human resources department dismissed.   

"We all dread going into work at the department now," the worker told San Jose Spotlight.   

Blackwell could not be reached for comment.   

Morale in the department was already low following management's response to a cyberattack in April. The worker said VTA failed to fix its internet for weeks, forcing workers in the office to rely on hotspots. Morale continued to plummet after the shooting, the individual added.   

"Our main concern is they're making our department so miserable to be in," they said. "How do I know that one of my coworkers is not going to lose it one day?"