A line of people in uniform -- neon yellow jackets and dark blue pants with reflective stripes at the knees -- stand before a collection of flowers.
VTA employees pay their respects at a memorial where family, friends and community members attend a vigil for the victims of a shooting, at San José City Hall in San José, California, on May 27, 2021.  (Photo by AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the Wake of the VTA Mass Shooting, a Cultural Shift to Mental Health for Bus and Train Workers

In the Wake of the VTA Mass Shooting, a Cultural Shift to Mental Health for Bus and Train Workers

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255.

The mass shooting at a Valley Transportation Authority rail yard that left nine people dead in May was heartbreaking enough. But the tragedy also rippled throughout the region in other ways.

Valley transit riders waited as service gaps — intentionally created while train and bus operators took the necessary time to heal — were slowly restored over the course of months.

Five months later, with the return of the light-rail Green Line from Winchester Station to Old Ironsides Station, transit service systemwide was finally restored.

"We've been waiting for this," said Iqbal Dhillon, a VTA train operator. Dhillon spoke to KQED in September, the day of the system-wide reopening and mere minutes before he hopped behind the controls of his train to ferry passengers on the newly restored Green Line.

A man wearing a blue work jacket with an American flag patch on the left shoulder sits at the controls of a train, looking through the windshield.
Iqbal Dhillon, a VTA train operator, hops behind the controls of a train on the Green Line the first day the route was fully back in service on Sept. 18, 2021. The day marked the first that all VTA routes were restored following the May mass shooting that led to the death of 9 VTA employees. (Photo courtesy VTA)

"There's no words to express how I felt that day," he said. The people who died, and the survivors, will forever be with him, Dhillon said. "There's no day we are not remembering them. Every day we walk through those doors."

While operators described the restoration of train service as a symbolic win, it isn't a full return to normalcy. True healing will take time, effort and intentional mental health support.

That need to heal the hearts and minds of VTA employees may lead to a culture shift in the agency, its management and union told KQED, one that prioritizes mental health not just for traumatic incidents like May's mass shooting, but the constant emotional challenges faced every day by workers who sit behind a wheel.

"Through this experience, this horrible experience, we're starting to identify all the many traumas in our lives as bus operators and as train operators, as mechanics and maintenance folks who work in the public," said John Courtney, head of Amalgamated Transit Union, or ATU, Local 265. "Every time that door opens we don't know if we're going to get assaulted, spat on, cursed at. These are little traumas, mini-traumas, that happen every single day."

ATU Local 265 represents VTA operators, and Courtney in particular is charged with charting a path forward for his members with a focus on their mental health.

"That's where we're at right now," he said, "we need to figure out what's long term for all of our people."

Yet the agency's mental health crossroads comes at a similar moment for the transit workers nationally. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a strain on transit agencies from San Francisco to New York City, which is beginning to see workers' unions respond to a rising need for mental health support.

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From the ashes of tragedy, Courtney thinks that VTA can build a new future that prioritizes mental health, laying down tracks for the nation's transit agencies to follow.

Starting the process

Courtney was raised in a row home in Philadelphia, from what he called a tough part of town. In that environment, he said, you're taught not to tell people how you feel.

"I don't even think I heard the word 'feelings' my whole life," he said.

That's the same culture VTA and other transit agencies still have, some officials said.

"It's very kind of, you know, strap your boots up and go to work and get behind that wheel," said Brandi Childress, a spokesperson for the VTA.

When it comes to getting work done, that kind of mentality can be a plus. But it doesn't leave much room to discuss mental health,  Courtney and others said.

That changed May 26, when Samuel James Cassidy, 57, a disgruntled VTA employee, opened fire at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San José. He killed nine people, then fatally turned the gun on himself.

Courtney was there. So were at least another hundred of his union members.

"I watched," he said.

It's an enormous thing to go through. Courtney began to open up to the need for not only crisis counseling, but long-term therapy that may benefit all of his members.

Healing took time — or rather, is still taking time. And not everyone made it through that journey.

One of ATU 265's board members, Henry Gonzales, took his own life three months after the shooting, further highlighting the need to support the workers.

A nighttime shot of dozens of glassed-in candles lining a low wall alongside a sign that reads, "VTA [heart] San Jose."
A memorial with candles for the victims of the San José VTA rail yard shooting is seen at San José City Hall in San José, California, on May 27, 2021. (Amy Osborne / AFP) (Photo by AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images)

"I'm fighting my own demons, and regarding Henry, that was so hard, because he was so strong, for so many. He was there immediately afterward, a pillar of strength. And we didn't recognize it. There's a level of, I don't want to say guilt, but we didn't recognize Henry's pain, because he was so strong for others," Courtney said.

VTA has ushered in resources for its employees: discussion and support groups, behavioral health clinicians, Kaiser psychiatry, support from the Bill Wilson Center's Centre for Living with Dying and its Critical Incident Response, and onsite counseling. Employees who were at the Guadalupe Railyard, the site of the shooting, were reassigned to other VTA locations.

For Courtney, relief didn't come until he took the time to directly address his own trauma. He, like many, was focused on supporting the healing of others — even at his own expense.

"I was trying to support my family, my wife and kids ... and trying to be there for all of those folks. And I wasn't dealing with my own demons," he said.

But he buckled down and got help. Courtney went to a retreat in Florida and met with experts who specialize in acute post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has. And for someone who'd never been comfortable expressing his feelings, suddenly things started to click.

"The light bulb went on, you know, in my head about all the traumas that I've gone through in my lifetime — not only this one — and how they accumulate and cumulatively can really just kind of hold you back from being a complete person," he said, "So definitely an awakening after this."

But despite efforts from the VTA and amplified conversations around mental health, employees are still struggling. Workers have previously described VTA's workplace culture as toxic, according to a recent report from San José Spotlight, which obtained records where workers complained of a hostile environment. In it, they claim that the VTA is "largely unresponsive" to complaints filed to the Office of Civil Rights, and some workers feel their concerns are being cast aside.

Part of the long-term work at VTA, then, is changing its culture, Courtney said.

"They're trying to do the right thing," he said. "They were so entrenched in their old ways."

Investment is needed for that cultural change. State Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymember Ash Kalra obtained $20 million in state funding to make that process a reality.

Part of that funding may already have found a use. In August, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who is also a member of the VTA Board of Directors, proposed a new trauma center that would help VTA survivors with their mental health recovery, but also serve as a future recovery center for anyone facing stark trauma in the county.

While that trauma center is still going through an approval process, a joint union/management committee is determining how best to spend that $20 million toward worker mental health, and to change the agency's work culture to wrap around emotional well-being. All of this money also brings a level of scrutiny to how the VTA figures out its worker support moving forward.

"It's a blessing and a curse," Childress, the VTA spokesperson, said. "Now we are under a microscope. We're in a spotlight of how we figure this out."

But, she said, no matter what disagreements may come, there is a lot of support toward their shared goal, both inside and outside VTA.

"There's a lot of people who are really, you know, they're really believing in this and they're really supporting it," she said.

With more than 400 employees who worked at the Guadalupe Rail Yard, the site of the shooting, the need was great, she said. Whereas before, protocol may only have centered on vehicle safety checks — necessary mechanical measures — now staffers are trying to check in on each other's well-being as often as on the trains they operate. That includes a "red flag training" protocol, to ensure warning signs of future disgruntled employees are seen so interventions can happen sooner.

A faraway shot of a rail yard with a line of trains, as a small crowd of people in tactical gear walk toward the camera.
Tactical law enforcement officers move through the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light-rail yard where a mass shooting occurred on May 26, 2021, in San José, California. (Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)

While these efforts are currently designed for those who experienced the trauma of the May shooting, Courtney says this kind of mental health support is needed nationally — not just for incidents like mass shootings, but for the everyday trauma experienced by transit workers.

Everyday traumas

Imagine a job where every day, a spat between you and another person is as regular as punching in your time card. You may get into a heated argument, punched from behind, sworn at, or even — yes, this has happened — vomited on.

Welcome to the life of a transit operator.

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Those incidents, and the associated traumas, add up — day in, day out — forming emotional gunk in a person's emotional framework that builds up over days, months and years, Courtney said.

"It's cumulative," Courtney said. "As a bus operator, I know that a lot of folks, when I drove a bus, they took out what they were going through on me."

And that's not just at VTA, it's all over the country. Just ask Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City.

"We've been getting assaulted, spit on, stabbed, punched, slapped," he told KQED. "And you know, when that stuff happens, it's traumatic. You go home, you think about it, and it's a hard thing to get over. You need, in most cases, you need some psychiatric help to get over it."

And, Utano said, mental health for transit workers has only gotten worse during the pandemic. In New York, they decided to study the extent of it.

An NYU School of Global Public Health Survey of nearly 700 New York transit operators found fear and work stress tied directly to the pandemic. Nearly 70% of respondents feared for their safety at work, specifically due to riders not wearing masks, getting angry when asked to wear a mask, attacking them if asked to wear a mask or attacking them if they didn’t enforce mask use on other riders.

Utano said his union wants that study to go even deeper. He also noted some New York operators he's spoken to have some of the same hesitancy to get the help they need that Courtney mentioned about San José.

"I can tell you from experience what people have said. 'What are you depressed about? You got a good job. You got money. You're doing well,'" Utano said.

That's why speaking out about mental health can be so powerful. People who are suffering can recognize that they're not alone, and punch through that culture of silence.

"They don't have to hide it,"  Utano said. "There's millions of people who are having this problem."

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Spreading the word

Despite initial hesitancy, a new appreciation for mental health care may be spreading in the transit industry, Utano said. At the Transport Workers Union's annual convention in Las Vegas last month, representatives from transit unions across the country convened and talked. And mental health was on the lips of some.

One of those union leaders in Las Vegas was Roger Marenco, the president of TWU Local 250A, representing familiar figures in Bay Area transit — San Francisco Muni operators.

Marenco thinks the self-care ethos being birthed at VTA, just 50 miles south, should make its way up the peninsula to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

"In terms of mental health and wellness, we at TWU are fearful what happened with San José may happen in San Francisco with SFMTA because of the harassment, trauma and stress," Marenco said.

While physical assault heals, mental trauma, Marenco said, "stays with them day after day, year after year."

But, Marenco said, it doesn't have to.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255

KQED's Michelle Wiley contributed to this story.

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