Court employees say COVID-19 exposure and lax rules put them at risk in Santa Clara County
The Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Rachel Leven.

Santa Clara County Superior Court employees say they’re not being protected from COVID-19, and they fear for their health and safety every day they go to work.

Court employees are exposed to COVID-19 on an almost weekly basis. Safety concerns voiced by workers are routinely ignored. Mask wearing is not rigorously enforced.

Those are some of the troubling claims from some workers of the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

An outbreak of COVID-19 in the courts in late September and early October put court clerks and other county staff at risk, according to documents and numerous interviews, especially as coronavirus case counts and deaths continue to climb in the South Bay. San José Spotlight spoke to four court employees who shared similar accounts.

The employees said the outbreak was linked to multiple Sheriff’s Office deputies working in the courts who tested positive after traveling out of state in September.

“The Sheriff’s Office does not restrict the travel of any of its employees while off-duty, however we expect everyone to use their best judgment when it comes to traveling during this pandemic,” wrote Sergeant Michael Low, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

Nine Sheriff’s Office employees tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 26, according to county data. By Oct. 4, that number had risen to 12 active cases.

“There is nothing specific that attributed to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases in October,” Low wrote in an email. “The Sheriff’s Office has implemented extensive preventative measures since the beginning of this pandemic to mitigate and slow the spread of COVID-19, which you can find on our website.”

Lax rule enforcement

But according to employee interviews and emails obtained by San José Spotlight, court supervisors did not follow established rules for protecting workers who came into contact with COVID-19 positive employees.

San José Spotlight agreed not to publish the employees’ names to avoid adverse employment consequences.

One clerk became aware on Oct. 14 she had been exposed to several COVID-19 positive deputies in the courtroom through another court clerk. The two clerks worked in the same building, but only one of the two had been notified by supervisors.

The clerk was notified six days after being exposed to COVID-19 from Lisa Herrick, general counsel for the county’s Superior Court.

“You are receiving this message because we have been informed that a Sheriff’s Office employee working in (your) Department… has tested positive for COVID-19,” the email read.

“The last email I believe (I) ever received about anybody testing positive or possible exposures was in July,” the clerk told San José Spotlight. “So I asked if (my colleague) had she been tested. I asked, ‘Did the court tell you to stay home and quarantine and get tested?’ And she said no, and I said ‘You need to go ahead and get tested.’”

Another clerk received an email saying she had been exposed to the contagious virus Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 after working in a courtroom with multiple deputies. At least one of them had tested positive for COVID-19 before she ever received a contact-tracing email.

Employees were not explicitly instructed to get tested nor were they told to quarantine. Since the court employees were not yet identified as “close contacts,” this technically follows protocols set by the public health department.

Close contact is defined as any period of time for 15 minutes or more within a distance of six feet or less, according to CDC guidelines and the guidelines of the court. One clerk knew she had been in close contact with one of the sick deputies for longer than that.

The email said court officials “cannot disclose any details about the Sheriff’s Office employee to protect their medical privacy, but if you have been in close contact with a Sheriff’s Office employee, please see your health care provider if you are symptomatic,” the email reads.

This seemingly leaves the contact tracing up to the individuals who may have been exposed, employees said.

Changing policies

A memo sent to court employees, titled “Procedures for COVID-19 Positive Tests,” outlines stringent requirements for close contacts of anyone who tests positive.

Any close contact is supposed to be excluded from the “facility worksite or any other job site for 14 days from their last contact with the COVID-19-positive employee, even if they test negative for COVID-19,” according to the memo.

But that did not happen for at least three court clerks who spoke to San José Spotlight.

The close contact also “must be tested for COVID-19 around 7 days after they last had contact with the COVID-19 positive employee.” All results should be reported to the employee’s human resources representative, the memo said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Superior Court employees received thorough emails on any potential exposures within the court system.

For example, an email sent to staff in March detailed an exposure on March 17 at the Family Justice Court, where a COVID-19-positive individual “was at FJC during the times of 1400-1530 hours and entered through the building via employee entrance door.”

The employee took the elevator to the second floor and spoke to multiple staff members on both floors, the email said.

An email sent to Superior Court staff about a potential COVID-19 exposure at the beginning of the pandemic.

But those emails and releasing that level of detail stopped, multiple clerks said, without any explanation why.

Not enforcing face masks

One clerk told San José Spotlight she’s adamant about wearing her face covering, especially because she works at the entrance of her building.

But the clerk said she saw court employees and visitors enter the building without masks and deputies at the doors who staff the metal detectors did not enforce the mask rule.

Disposable masks are available at the entrance, but the clerk saw deputies decline to offer visitors the coverings.

“There’s a super spreader event at the courthouse, every single day,” said Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Superior Court Professional Employees Association. “It’s ridiculous. The courts have resisted doing it right.”

When asked about the complaints from court employees, a spokesperson for county’s public health department said the concerns shared by San José Spotlight have been sent to a COVID-19 concerns website to be investigated.

“All information is followed up on, whether it is a private company, nonprofit, public government agency, or health care facility,” the spokesperson said. “The county of Santa Clara will continue to work closely with all county based government entities, including the courts, to ensure a strong COVID-19 response for all employees and members of the public.”

At the end of October, court officials updated safety protocols to allow some employees to work from home. However, how many days clerks can work from home appears to differ from department to department.

One clerk reports being allowed to work remotely two days per week, while another reports only being allowed to work from home once a week.

Amended orders and procedures

Presiding Judge Deborah Ryan earlier this month issued an order regarding the type of face coverings required in the Superior Court for court staff, visitors and judicial officers.

“The face covering must have at least two layers of material and must fit snugly over the nose, mouth and chin, hooking around the ears or tied behind the head,” the order says. “Neck gaiters, single-layer cloth face coverings, face coverings with an exhalation valve, and face shields (without the two-layered face covering underneath) are not permitted.”

But since then, according to employees across departments, masks have still not been routinely enforced.

“Working in the office wouldn’t be so extremely stressful and dangerous if the court would enforce the mask mandates and actually train their employees on safety measures,” one clerk said, “instead of just sending reminder emails.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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