State agency fines Santa Clara VTA after bus driver dies of COVID
SAN JOSE, Calif. - The state agency that oversees workplace safety has fined Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority $16,200 in COVID-related violations stemming from the sickness and eventual death of a bus driver.
Cal-OSHA issued the fine on March 2, following a five-month inspection that started in September.
As far back as Aug. 25, Cal-OSHA inspectors said that the VTA failed to maintain its Injury and Illness Prevention Program and did not correct the unhealthy conditions or work practices to COVID-19.
State health inspectors said at the time, the VTA did not require or ensure the use of face coverings at all times by employees at the facility and while operating the buses. Cal-OSHA also said that the VTA did not provide "effective training and instruction to employees," including training on how the virus is spread and measures to avoid infection.
Both of the fines were deemed "serious."
In an emailed response, agency spokeswoman Brandi Childress said that the VTA is in the process of appealing the citations and because of that, she couldn't comment on specifics.
"However," she added, "VTA is confident in the comprehensive actions it has taken to date to keep its employees and customers safe and informed during this very challenging time. Losing members of our work family to this pandemic has been extremely difficult. We remain committed to maintaining our vigilance and doing all we can to slow the spread of this virus."
VTA lost Audrey Lopez, a beloved San Jose bus driver for more than 13 years.
Union members say Lopez got infected with coronavirus in August and later died from COVID-19 on Oct. 11 after being in a coma for nearly two months.
"The only place that she had been was back and forth to work and home," said John Courtney, president and business agent for AT Union local #265, the largest union under VTA.
Courtney said that he presented all sorts of safety ideas to management, many of which were rejected.
And the sickness and death didn't stop with Lopez.
Since March, VTA said 198 employees, mostly bus drivers, have tested positive.
VTA mechanic Jon Finister died of COVID in February 2021.
Then in February, John Finister, a VTA road-call mechanic, died of COVID. He had worked for the transit agency for 21 years and was known for his sense of humor.
Courtney said that both employees who died were very diligent about safety protocols.
In January, Ken Blackstone, public information officer for the VTA, said Santa Clara County conducts contact tracing and the VTA interviews employees about where they've been and who they've been in contact with. The tracing showed, Blackstone said, that most of the people getting COVID, contracted the disease outside of work.
Courtney countered that information, saying that some employees didn't tell the truth for fear of being financially penalized.
"Some folks say they got it at home because they don't want to go through all of the VTA process, the questioning, the accusations," Courtney said.
To date, Courtney said that in his opinion, VTA management has "gotten a lot better, they are more opening to listening."
He said that's because he rallied up a lot of political support "to get that help."
In the early days of the pandemic, Courtney recalled: "They just refused to listen to those who were most affected but prior. They were like, 'It's our way or the highway.' "
Cal-OSHA did not address where employees contracted the disease.
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KTVU's Emma Goss and Jesse Gary contributed to this report.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez