Transit workers are one step closer to mental health support, part of a statewide effort to address workplace violence.
Gov. Gavin Newsom approved Senate Bill 1294, which strives to implement wellness centers for workers and their families across California's transit agencies, using San Jose's own VTA Resiliency Center as a model.
The bill, authored by state Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymember Ash Kalra, is in direct response to the VTA mass shooting last year, which killed nine men including Dublin resident Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, a VTA substation mechanic.
The VTA Resiliency Center, also known as the 526 Resiliency Center to acknowledge the shooting that happened May 26, 2021, opened in the aftermath of the tragedy that claimed nine workers' lives and another life months later as a worker died by suicide after suffering from PTSD. The center started through a $20 million state fund, and offers mental health services, peer counseling and community spaces for VTA workers.
The bill aims to highlight mental health as a long-term solution to addressing workplace safety, Cortese said. The goal is to expand mental health services in transit agencies and beyond.
"This isn't just about VTA. This is about us starting to create the culture and the infrastructure in public agencies," Cortese told San Jose Spotlight. "There's a broader prize here at stake, which is a complete shift in culture as to how we approach workforce wellness in the state of California, how we approach intervention and prevention around mass shootings."
A VTA spokesperson said the public transit agency appreciates Cortese's efforts to care for the employees affected by the shooting.
"SB 1294 is another tool to share the knowledge our employees gained and resources we have depended on so that others can be supported in the future," the spokesperson said.
The bill has the potential to save lives, said John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265 which represents a majority of VTA union members. Better mental health support could have been part of the solution to prevent last year's mass shooting.
"I'll be honest, I was overwhelmed emotionally," Courtney, who testified twice on behalf of the bill, told San Jose Spotlight. "This means so much to our members... This is the opportunity to provide help, to open the door for those who need mental health help."
VTA workers have faced an uphill battle following the deadliest mass shooting in Bay Area history. While the VTA board of directors voted to provide $4.9 million in benefits for the victims' families, current employees report an ongoing toxic work culture. Meanwhile, VTA workers face regular abuse from riders, including spit, physical assault and sexual harassment.
Mental health services should be a part of every discussion on workplace safety and protections, Courtney said. Services are critical not just for workers, but for families as well.
"Prior to the incredible tragedy that we saw over here at VTA, there were no real mental health resources available for workers and their families," Courtney said. "Mental health issues were not something people wanted to speak about, and in fact, there was a stigma attached to admission or discussion even around mental health."
Results from the VTA Resiliency Center show transit agencies should focus on community-based and long-term mental health resources, said Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro. The center is run by the county's Victim Services Unit in the district attorney's office.
"We've had hundreds of counseling sessions with individuals and groups, and we expect that to continue because we know that the suffering that happens in the aftermath of a mass shooting doesn't end the next day," Gibbons-Shapiro told San Jose Spotlight. "To really think about the effects on the broader community over the long term... that's something that we've really worked on."
Mental health support in the workplace is critical as most individuals spend so much of their time at work, Cortese said. The next step is to collect data and create frameworks for future wellness centers.
"If we're going to confront the mental health crisis in this country and in the state of California, we've got to confront it in our workplaces," Cortese told San Jose Spotlight.