Santa Clara County remains on California’s COVID-19 watchlist, but employees at the Santa Clara County Assessor’s Office say the agency is putting policies in place to make sure employees return to work at the office, even if they have the capability to work from home.
153 of the approximately 270 employees that work at the Assessor’s Office have submitted a petition to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 11. They say, they’re being asked to return to in-person work for something that has “no service function nor work-related need.”
An employee who reached out to The Weekly says he was among the first employees told to return to work at the Assessor’s Office in May. He says medical issues were not considered a valid excuse to stay home.
“They basically say that if you’re sick or you have a doctor’s note, then you are able to take emergency sick leave,” said the employee. “Beyond that, they would rather that you come into the office when you’re scheduled to come and work from home, when you’re scheduled to work from home.”
He says once the sick leave and vacation time are exhausted, you have to make the choice to not get paid or return to work at the office.
County Assessor Larry Stone says 77 of his employees returned to work in May, some on a rotational basis. He says because the Assessor’s Office brings $5.1 billion in revenue into the county each year, it’s an essential business and his employees are essential workers.
“When you employ yourself in the county…they tell you at the beginning you’re a disaster [service worker],” said Stone. “Every employee including me, every employee in the county, all 22,000 of them, are disaster service workers.”
Stone says his office has made significant effort to make sure the office is safe. There is room to socially distance and proper PPE is provided to employees as well as hand sanitizers; bathrooms have been remodeled to include touchless faucets. He says his office has gone above and beyond county guidelines and it is safe for employees to return to work.
The employee who spoke to The Weekly says while it’s possible to social distance now, a current plan to bring 40 more employees in on a rotating basis makes him nervous.
“When the non-management people are brought in half-time, I think we can keep it socially distanced. There’s plenty of people who are still very uncomfortable just doing that,” said the employee. “I don’t know if we could have more in the office and be safe.”
The petition submitted on Aug. 11 is the second petition submitted to the Board of Supervisors by employees at the Assessor’s Office. On Aug. 4, employees in the Real Property Division of the Assessor’s Office reported that Stone is “pressuring” 40 more employees to return to the office to deal with the assessment appeals process.
The petition points out that much larger counties like Los Angeles County and San Diego County are not providing in-person service. In fact, Los Angeles County has postponed assessment appeals while San Diego County is offering virtual appeals hearings. The employees say either could be done in Santa Clara County.
Both the employee who spoke to The Weekly and the petitioners say in many instances the Assessor is missing is a key component of the Santa Clara County Public Health order, which says, “All workers who can do their jobs from home are required to work remotely.”
“99 percent of the time we’re on Microsoft Teams calls or Skype calls, there’s not really a lot we do in person so there’s not really a good reason for us to be in the office,” said the employee.
A Public Health spokesperson confirmed the county health rules apply to all businesses in Santa Clara County, even government agencies.
Stone believes the health order is missing a key component.
“What is absent from that health order is you should have as many people teleworking as you can, but it doesn’t say, at the highest level of productivity,” said Stone. “So I agree, people can work from home, but we can’t accomplish our essential responsibilities if all of those people, all of the time work from home…you can work from home, but you can’t work productively enough to generate $5.1 billion with a revenue a year.”
The employees disagree. They say they met the July 1 deadline for property assessments while working from home and that should be proof enough that working from home is feasible.
“I think that he [Stone] should take into consideration that we’ve proven we can do the work remotely. That 95 percent of the work that we do can be done remotely and that we’ve proven that,” said the employee.
Stone says it was the nine months before that helped them reach the deadline.
“They conveniently forget about the nine months, where we didn’t have COVID-19,” said Stone. “So, all the preparation for nine months up to the [July 1 deadline], if we were teleworking all that nine months, that’s what they’re asking for. We would be even the worst. So next March, we would be in a worse position that we were this March.”
Stone says his office has agreed to reasonable accommodations for 17 employees who have verified medical issues, but he says just being concerned isn’t a good enough reason to not come to work.
“I’m sorry, we’re not a social service organization. We’re an assessor’s office,” said Stone. “Just not feeling safe is not a reason for us to allow somebody to do something that doesn’t accomplish the objective.”
Stone feels teleworking does not and cannot accomplish the objective.
“I’ve done extensive research on teleworking, it reduces productivity almost everywhere that it has been happening,” said Stone.
“I think he [Stone] needs to take his people’s feelings into consideration,” said the employee. “I don’t really feel that they are concerned. I think they are more concerned about the business, obviously, than their people.”