COVID strikes Santa Clara County Assessor’s Office weeks after workers return
Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone stands outside his office in San Jose in this file photo.

Two employees at the Santa Clara County Assessor’s Office recently tested positive for COVID-19, causing some workers to question whether they went back to work too soon.

Employees who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation told San José Spotlight the office was notified of a positive infection on Aug. 13, less than one month after management ordered them to return to the office full-time. The assessor’s office employs 249 people and occupies three floors in the county headquarters on Hedding Street.

Assessor Larry Stone initially told San José Spotlight the infection didn’t happen in the office, but rather an employee reported his wife contracted COVID-19 and self-quarantined at home. Stone later corrected himself and said the employee tested positive. A day later, he called back to say a second employee tested positive for COVID-19.

“We abided by all the county protocols and notified the county health department,” Stone said, adding that more than 90% of his staff are vaccinated and the appraiser who tested positive was unvaccinated.

Stone and his employees squabbled last year about a policy requiring some workers to physically be in the office, with the assessor arguing it would improve productivity while workers said it put them at risk. The county sided with the workers. In early July when the pandemic appeared to be receding, Stone brought employees back to the office. At the time, he told San José Spotlight the return to work was going well and with surprisingly little pushback from workers.

But some employees in the assessor’s office see the positive infections as evidence that Stone suspended teleworking prematurely. They also blame the county for allowing unvaccinated workers to mingle with the vaccinated population, which they fear is a public health hazard given the rising cases due to new variants of COVID-19 such as Delta and Lambda.

“Why not do the vaccine mandate first, get as many people vaccinated as possible, then say if you’re not getting vaccinated, you can’t come in the building?” said one worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “They didn’t do any of that. They opened everything up, then said ‘OK, we’ll deal with getting as many people vaccinated as possible later.’”

At the end of July, Santa Clara County announced a requirement for its 22,000 employees to be vaccinated. An updated timeline published Aug. 5 states that all county personnel must be partially or fully vaccinated by Aug. 20, or have submitted a request for exemption. By Sept. 30, all personnel who don’t have exemptions must be fully vaccinated.

Stone said his office is not the only one seeing infections, noting that 169 positive cases among county employees have been reported between July 2 and Aug. 13.

The increase in positive infections caused by the Delta variant is raising some concerns among public health officials in Santa Clara County and throughout the Bay Area. Earlier this month, the county imposed an indoor mask mandate for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. This week, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed an urgency ordinance to require all people and event workers to show proof of vaccination prior to entering an event with 50 or more people.

In July, the director of Santa Clara County’s Employee Services Agency said the county wanted to bring employees back later that month. But he said individual departments get to decide their own timetables, and that some of them might consider a hybrid option.

Stone is adamant about his decision to end remote work.

“My job is to make sure people, individuals, employees, operate at the highest level of productivity,” Stone said. “There’s something we say around this office, the three most important things: Productivity, productivity, productivity.”

According to Stone, employees aren’t as productive at home as they are in the office. As an example, he said that completion of deeds by some workers declined significantly during the teleworking months, although he conceded that productivity in the office increased as whole.

Workers who spoke to San José Spotlight argue that their productivity didn’t suffer. They also said they’re nervous about being in the office, noting that Stone removed the temperature reading machine he installed at the beginning of the pandemic. Stone said the office stopped using the machine in June and that there’s no need to bring it back because the vast majority of his workers are vaccinated.

One vaccinated worker said they’re scared they could get infected at work and pass the virus to their children. They’re also upset with how the office handled the latest COVID-19 infections in the office.

“I’ve never been more outraged about anything in our office in the time I’ve been there,” they said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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