Roughly 15 months after offices across the South Bay shuttered due to the pandemic, some county employees are slowly returning to the workplace.
“With our responsibilities, we need people in the office,” Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone told San José Spotlight. “There were always people in the office during the pandemic, but now we’re bringing others back slowly.”
Santa Clara County is hoping to bring its workers back by mid to late July, said John Mills, director of the Employee Services Agency.
“There isn’t a uniform plan for all departments,” Mills said. “It’s up to the department to decide when to bring their employees back.”
According to Stone, other county departments bringing workers back in phases include the offices of the County Counsel and County Executive.
Health officials ended restrictions that shuttered most offices after the county moved into the least restrictive tier in May. Workplaces are free to reopen, but must confirm that employees are vaccinated, implement safety rules for those who are unvaccinated and report any positive cases to the county.
“There’s no longer a requirement to maximize remote work,” County Counsel James Williams said in a news conference in May.
The assessor’s office employs 249 people, occupying three floors in the county headquarters on Hedding Street. About half of assessor workers are back in the office so far. The goal is to “get back to normal” by August, Stone said. The assessor’s office is responsible for around $6 billion in revenue annually, more than half of which goes to fund public schools and community colleges.
Last summer, a public fight broke out between the assessor and his employees over a policy requiring some workers to be in the office. Stone said he wanted to improve productivity, while workers said the policy put their lives at risk. The county sided with workers, allowing them to work from home.
Now almost a year later, with California lifting most COVID-19 restrictions and Santa Clara County boasting one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, some workers are eager to come back, Stone said.
“It’s going really well,” he said. “There was surprisingly very little pushback.”
In his office, 89% of workers are vaccinated, Stone said. Those who decline to get the vaccine or disclose their vaccination status have to keep their masks on at all times.
Stone said his office has different protocols to keep workers safe. Employees who enter the office get temperature checks, something implemented last year. Each floor also has a designated janitorial crew to clean high-touch points several times a day.
“We also adhere to social distancing rules,” Stone said. “Nobody got COVID from this office (since last year).”
After a year of working from home, Santa Clara County also adopted a new telework policy, allowing employees who can perform their tasks remotely to avoid the office, Mills said.
“Hybrids could be an option for some,” Mills said, adding that the decision is up to each department. “This policy didn’t exist prior to the pandemic.”
In early July, VTA brought some of its administrative officers back to work, prompting concerns. One worker has already tested positive for COVID-19, San José Spotlight reported.
A mask mandate was also reimposed at the state Capitol last week after a COVID outbreak where nine people tested positive.
Across the state, the Delta variant is raising concerns among health officials as it becomes California’s most dominant strain of the coronavirus. Fully vaccinated individuals are believed to have high levels of protection, according to health officials, but some worry that the virus spreads among people who aren’t inoculated.
Stone, 80, said with safety protocols in place and a high vaccination rate in his office, he’s not worried.
“Of course there’s concern about the outbreak (at the Capitol),” he said. “But I feel comfortable with our county’s policy, I think it’s a good policy.”