Editor's Note: This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has agreed to pay retirement benefits to the families of workers killed in a mass shooting last May to make sure they're taken care of for years to come.
The VTA board of directors voted unanimously last week to give $4.9 million in retirement benefits to 10 families who lost loved ones in the shooting at the Guadalupe Rail Yard on May 26, 2021, including one who survived the attack and died by suicide months later. The agency will pay out $3,000 per month or more for each of the victim's qualified family members.
Seven of the 10 victims didn't work at VTA long enough or weren't old enough to be eligible for pension benefits. VTA previously gave one year worth of equivalent wages, three years of paid health insurance benefits and other financial assistance to affected families. Families have also filed workers' compensation claims.
Board members said it felt necessary to offer longer-term financial support to the families of victims, especially as the agency approaches the one-year anniversary of the shooting.
"We want to do whatever we can to support them," Patrick Burt, VTA board member and Palo Alto mayor, told San Jose Spotlight. "And it's not limited to what we believe might be the strict legal obligations -- we want to try to do what's right for the families."
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 (ATU), which represented the workers, agreed to work with the VTA to come up with a deal for providing benefits to the families. John Courtney, president of ATU 265, declined to discuss the benefits with San Jose Spotlight, saying it's a personal matter.
"We are not going to discuss any provisions of the pensions that went to the families of the deceased, in any way," he said.
VTA and ATU have struggled to see eye to eye on issues since the shooting. Last August, a VTA paint and body worker named Henry Gonzales died by suicide at the rail yard in downtown San Jose. Leadership from ATU, which represents Gonzales, blamed VTA for his death, saying the agency failed to give workers adequate mental health support. The transit agency called these claims false. In the months since, Courtney has taken VTA to task for having a toxic work culture. The agency decided to hire a consultant to evaluate and address this problem.
Transit advocates said it seemed promising ATU and VTA were able to come up with a deal to provide benefits to traumatized families.
"If both parties are happy with this decision, then I'm all for it," Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, told San Jose Spotlight.
Rich Constantine, VTA vice chair and mayor of Morgan Hill, echoed this sentiment.
"Contract negotiations are sometimes contentious, but this isn't that," he told San Jose Spotlight. "As we near the one-year anniversary, we're coming to grips with how we'll memorialize the event, and how we're still healing from the event. I think it was just natural for us to find common ground, and hopefully we can continue to find common ground on issues not related to this tragedy."
There may be need for common ground in the near future. On April 29, more than 2,000 VTA employees will need to be vaccinated for COVID-19 unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. Workers who don't comply with the policy may be disciplined or terminated.