Safety and Transparency at VTA: Telling the Whole Story5/21/2014 2:55 PM |
Transparency is a priority for a public agency. Funded with public dollars and providing a service to the public at large, VTA answers to the public: passengers, shopkeepers, school teachers, everyone who makes up the Santa Clara County community.
We take our commitment and responsibility to the public seriously. That’s why we’ve posted documents here that were requested over the course of eight months by a local TV news station. We want you to have them too and to understand what the documents show.
The Documents Tell the Story
These documents were requested to back up an argument, not necessarily to be evaluated on their own merit. VTA believes the argument -- that our personnel policies contribute to a lack of safety -- doesn’t hold water.
Let us repeat: VTA is safe.
We are one of the safest transit agencies in the San Francisco Bay area, if not the state and nation. We have a record of holding ourselves to higher safety standards than those set by regulatory agencies. We have a culture of safety, and we remind operators, mechanics, dispatchers and others every day of the importance of maintaining that culture.
The documents VTA provided tell a story that confirms that:
- Over a 10-year period, between 2003 and 2013, VTA fired 124 operators, supervisors and dispatchers. Another 115 people in those job titles were fired during their probationary period.
- Of those 239 people fired, 27 were returned to work -- not re-hired, but returned either to their former positions or, in one instance, returned to another job as if they had never left -- either through binding arbitration or settlement agreements, both of which we’ll discuss later;
- Arbitration and settlement agreements come with a monetary cost;
- VTA complies with employees’ rights to due process, and employs progressive discipline to modify behavior or improve performance;
- We are in compliance with all state and federal regulations;
- At VTA, safety is No. 1.
Binding Arbitration and Settlement Agreements and Progressive Discipline?
VTA moves to fire an employee because there is a strong and compelling reason for it.
The probationary period is the most effective management tool VTA has to assess the employee’s ability to perform and work in harmony with VTA’s policies and procedures. This tool is valuable because the probationary employee can be released without the more stringent due process afforded to a represented employee.
Once outside of the probationary period, VTA must prove just cause to fire the employee. Prior to that point, VTA attempts progressive discipline -- an effort to take escalating steps to modify the employee’s behavior, including counseling, oral and written warnings, suspension and, ultimately, termination.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the end. Employees that have been fired have rights. They can go to their union and contest the termination, and the union can take the case to binding arbitration.
Binding arbitration is similar to taking the case to court. The arbitrator is the judge and the union and VTA present their cases. The arbitrator then makes a decision either to uphold the firing or to reinstate the employee as if he or she had never been fired. The arbitrator may take into account the employee’s work history, experience and the value of progressive discipline in the particular case. A reinstatement frequently includes a monetary award of back wages that the employee would have earned had he or she continued to be employed. This process can take many months, and as the name implies, the result is binding. VTA must comply with the arbitrator’s decision.
Fourteen of the 27 employees mentioned above were returned through arbitration. VTA has won 70 percent of the cases taken to arbitration in the past 10 years.
If VTA believes it will either lose in arbitration or believes we will be required to pay a significant amount of public funds, we may opt for a settlement agreement. Settlement agreements allow VTA to take extra steps to make sure the employee’s performance or behavior meets expectations, and the monetary awards are in general less than those awarded in binding arbitration. It also gives VTA an opportunity to rehabilitate an employee or change behaviors. Thirteen of the 27 employees mentioned above were returned through settlement agreements.
Out of the 27 employees who were returned to work, 18 of them received back wages for a total of $635,572.03*. These wages are considered a salary that would have otherwise been earned by the employee if they had been able to continue their employment. Once an employee wins an arbitration, it is considered as a continuation of employment and not a rehiring process.
*The document provided to the TV affiliate includes an inaccurate total of $667,551.12.
Why Were Those 27 Employees Fired?
The majority of employees who were returned to work were disciplined for attendance and conduct. One of the employees was returned after an accident where the employee was not found at fault. Of the employees who were fired and later returned to their former position:
- 9 employees were released for attendance;
- 6 employees were released for violations of work conduct;
- 5 employees were released for other violations (assault, dishonesty, theft, insubordination, falsifying records);
- 5 employees were released for substance abuse; and
- 1 employee was released for an accident.
- 1 employee was released for an accident and returned to a new position.
Drugs and alcohol have no place and are not tolerated at VTA, and we take substance abuse very seriously. We provided information on our Drug and Alcohol Policy, which complies with all requirements of the Federal Drug Free Workplace regulations.
All VTA employees holding safety sensitive positions, such as bus and light rail operators, are contractually subject to random on-demand testing. Depending on the circumstances surrounding a failed drug and alcohol screening, the employee will either be required to satisfactorily complete a drug rehabilitation program or be subject to disciplinary proceedings up to and including termination of employment.
Provided is the most recent Federal Transit Administration Audit conducted in January 2013 which found VTA in compliance. Still, in September 2013, in partnership with the FTA, a letter was issued to VTA to offer guidance on revisions to strengthen discipline for drug and alcohol violations and decrease the number of chances employees have if they fail a drug or alcohol test. To stay vigilant when it comes to the safety of the public, VTA is currently addressing our policy with the unions to refine it.
Working with Our Regulatory Partners
VTA operates with oversight from state and federal agencies. The California Public Utilities Commission oversees compliance with state safety regulations, and the FTA oversees compliance with federal regulations.
Because these agencies have so many other transportation agencies to regulate, and because each agency does things differently, the CPUC and FTA often are not fully versed on specific VTA practices. This is where a good working relationship comes in. Often, a simple explanation of the facts and reasoning behind them will help each side reach a better understanding of practices and understand where or if changes need to be made. This constant communication is crucial to the safe, smooth functioning of any transit agency.
Safety is Priority No. 1
By any measure, VTA is safe. On an average week day, VTA operates over 60,000 miles on its bus and light rail network, providing over 140,000 safe trips throughout 326 square miles of service area. Out of 2,000 employees, 1,728 are directly responsible for driving, maintaining, and overseeing the outstanding service VTA provides on roadways and railways every day.
For this reason, VTA bus and light rail operators are commended for their excellent service at VTA and are recognized for their achievements in safe operations, good attendance and customer service each month. In the last 10 years, 303 operators have earned the prestigious 1 million mile award for safe driving. Some have gone on to earn awards for driving 2 million safe miles, and three have driven 3 million miles safely.
VTA’s customers also have echoed that they feel safe and secure on the system. The recently released On Board Passenger Survey found that 80 percent of riders felt safe on VTA.
At VTA, we stand by our safety record and our practices and policies. We’re always looking for ways to improve, and we take seriously any safety concerns from members of the public, employees or agencies.
The public can rest assured that your transit system is working for you in the safest manner possible. We look forward to seeing you onboard.
Stay tuned for more updates relating to these and other documents.