The State Worker

Caltrans death notice spurs a 'Reply Allpocalypse' for 16,000 workers

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty
Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty Caltrans

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty had a somber message to share with more than 16,000 state employees last week: A Caltrans electrician had been killed on the job in a highway accident, marking the agency’s first death in the field since July 2015.

“It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that I must inform you of the loss of one of our Caltrans family members today,” he wrote in all-staff message in the evening of Thursday, Sept. 1 following the death of 16-year Caltrans veteran Jorge Lopez.

Dougherty wanted to deliver the sad news himself, but his expression of grief devolved into one of the banes of modern office life: the Reply Allpocalypse.

Those events occur when someone sends a message to a large number of people, and members of the group respond with their own “reply all” emails. The Reply Allpocalypse cannot end until people stop contributing to the thread, or until someone intervenes to shut down the chain.

Normally, all-staff messages at Caltrans have a safeguard that prevents employees from responding to the sender. Last week, that feature had been turned off during an upgrade of the agency’s email system, a Caltrans spokeswoman said.

As a result, dozens of employees over several hours carried on an email chain that alternately included tributes to Lopez and exasperated notes asking to end the thread.

“Our heartfelt condolences and prayers to the Lopez family and all his loved ones,” a Caltrans Bay Area superintendent wrote the morning after Dougherty’s message.

“PLEASE REMOVE MY NAME FROM THE ‘reply,’” a Caltrans traffic operations coordinator wrote.

She was one of several employees who asked to be taken off the list, a move that only extended the “reply all” thread.

“Individual names cannot be removed when replying. Stop selecting ‘Reply All’ or it will continue to go to ‘DOT All Staff,’ a planner wrote back to the woman who wanted off the email chain.

Some Caltrans employees implored their colleagues to stop sending messages, saying they were distracted by the high volume of emails.

“It is indeed a sad day. I understand that people are hurting. It is, however, still a working day and we are paid by the people of California to perform a job, and currently I am having trouble doing the tasks that I need to do with my inbox being blown up with messages,” a government analyst wrote.

Those kinds of messages in some cases ignited indignant responses from Caltrans workers related to the dangers of roadside work.

“I’m stunned how you have blindly felt it was important to issue an opinion on such a sensitive subject that each and every field maintenance person has experienced firsthand. The glass house you preside in is a very small fraction of Caltrans and the reality our people experience every day,” one maintenance worker wrote.

Reply Allpocalypse events are common in the workplace, though many often stem from trivial messages and take on a joking tone. The New York Times last week printed a one-word story in which the headline asked “When I’m mistakenly put on an email chain, should I hit “reply all’ asking to be removed.”

The answer and full text of the story read, “No.”

Lopez, 59, was killed by a big rig on State Route 14 in Los Angeles County. He is survived by his wife and three children. The California Transportation Foundation has opened an account where people can make donations for his family. It is online at Transportationfoundation.org/donate.

One of his sons told KABC that Lopez’s death should remind drivers to be careful when they pass workers.

“It only takes a second,” Alberto Lopez told the TV station. “It takes a second to save a life and it takes a second to take one away. If you're driving, put the phone down. If you're driving, you should be paying attention to the road. And you can stop tragedies like this from happening.”

Vanessa Wiseman, a Caltrans spokeswoman, said many Caltrans employees were comforted by the expressions of grief that followed Dougherty’s initial message.

“Everyone that works here at Caltrans is part of our extended family and we’re all grieving, and you witnessed that by many of the condolences expressed in the email,” she said. “It was nice to see how many employees took the opportunity to express their grief.”

Want to know more about how to get a promotion within California state government? State employees can get e-notifications for job openings on their CalCareer accounts. State exam footage courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabi

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton

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