COVID-19 infections are rising across multiple Santa Clara County departments about a month after management ordered workers back to the office, and some employees are frustrated and bewildered that they have to return.
A county spokesperson told San José Spotlight that 221 positive infections occurred among approximately 22,000 employees between between July 3 and Aug. 20. The county did not provide a breakdown of cases by department. But workers who spoke with San José Spotlight or complained publicly said there have been exposures or infections in the Assessor’s Office, Social Services Agency, the Department of Child Support Services and Juvenile Hall.
“The county of Santa Clara is following all orders and recommendations from local and state public health officials and Cal/OSHA to protect our employees and the members of the public we serve,” the spokesperson said. “This includes compliance with all requirements for handling positive cases, steps for employees returning to work after a positive test, following face covering rules inside our offices and other important COVID-19 safety measures.”
‘They really haven’t done much’
The county’s confidence in its safety measures is not matched by all employees. Whistleblowers and public complaints show a growing concern among county workers about the surge in Delta variant cases.
Workers who spoke with San José Spotlight expressed frustration that the county is trying to bring employees back to the office when many can perform their duties at home.
“It’s very disconcerting,” said one employee who works in the county Social Services Agency, adding that they received five notifications about infections since people returned to the office in July. Employees who spoke with San José Spotlight requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “They really haven’t done much to make it a safe place.”
Santa Clara County started bringing workers back to the office in July and ordered that all public employees be vaccinated by the end of September or acquire an exemption. A county spokesperson said there are approximately 2,200 employees who are not yet vaccinated.
In this interim period, the county’s teleworking policy lets department heads dictate the terms of remote work, including the right to accept or reject applications for teleworking.
This has caused public blow ups in some departments. Employees in the Assessor’s Office fought for the right to telework during the pandemic, and whistleblowers recently contacted San José Spotlight after the office reported two positive infections.
Complaints go public
Multiple county employees criticized their departments for bringing them back to the office during a Board of Supervisors meeting this week.
Francine Gonzalez, an SEIU 521 steward in the Department of Child Support Services, said there’s already a shortage of cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer after three weeks of being back on-site.
“We received notification last Friday that there was an on-site exposure,” Gonzalez said. “We need to look at the safety of all county employees, and not by implementing a ‘my way or the highway’ mandate.”
A mobile health crisis clinician who identified himself as Harold claimed the county assured him and his co-workers the shared working spaces are safe.
“In the first week, at least three of your employees contracted COVID at juvenile hall,” Harold said. “Multiple programs have continued to go through exposure outbreaks.”
An employee in the public health department told San José Spotlight they’re shocked that their office brought people back despite the growing number of Delta variant cases.
“You’d think public health people would be so cautious,” they said. “They’re like, ‘you have to wear your mask in the office all the time.’ But other than that, they don’t have any special cleaning materials for us… the ventilation in the building where I work is not good, it hasn’t been upgraded or anything.”
A county document dated July 30 instructs employees who test positive for COVID-19 to immediately notify their supervisor within 48 hours. Departments are required to report positive cases to the public health department and to the county counsel.
A county worker posted a petition last week asking Santa Clara County to allow telework in light of the increase in positive COVID-19 infections.
“Almost all transactions can be completed remotely and have been for the past 16 months,” the petition reads. “The public and all clients have been serviced to the same professional standard as they were prior to the COVID pandemic.”