The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the lives of people all around our country. Times are scary. It's a virus that we are learning more about each day. Our nerves have been pushed to the limit. This past week in District Court we learned about a Legal Aid attorney who had recently returned from a trip to Seattle. She was at work on Monday and Tuesday in the Drug Part, the District Court Judges lounge, as well as in her office and she had no symptoms. On Wednesday she developed a fever, immediately raising a red flag. Late Wednesday she was tested for the Coronavirus and, thankfully on Friday the results came back negative for Corona. Since Thursday, when news broke that some court employees may have possibly come in contact with someone infected with Corona, fear and terror took over. It was a natural response to a personal threat to our health and safety.
The unknown is what scares people the most. How can one protect themselves from something we know relatively little about? The answer we have been hearing on the news is to avoid social settings, avoid shaking hands or embracing one another, and take care of our personal hygiene by washing our hands and sneezing and coughing into our elbows. This is sound advice considering people may have the virus days before they exhibit any symptoms. Less contact with others can limit the chances of catching the virus and unknowingly sharing the virus with others.
We work in a place in which we come into contact with, at minimum, a couple of thousand people a week. The courts are open to the public without limitation. As a result, we work in a place where the chances are extremely high that we will come into contact with someone who may unknowingly have the virus. This is a real concern for us. Due to the nature of what we do for a living, we are very vulnerable.
So, what is being done to protect us at our workplace? Simply put: "not enough". The protocols that the Office of Court Administration have put in place have not been enough to protect court employees. We have tried repeatedly, and with very little success, to communicate our concerns and our ideas with OCA. My first correspondence with OCA was on Feb. 27. At that time it was reported on the news that over 100 people on Long Island were being monitored for the Coronavirus. I asked Carolyn Grimaldi, the Director of Labor Relations, if a plan was being put together to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus in the courthouses. She informed me that she was going to be at a meeting on Feb. 28 "to discuss how to minimize risk/exposure as to our own staff and regular Court users". Since that time, I am told that OCA has established a task force to develop protocols for handling this crisis. Unfortunately, not one union has been asked to be a part of the task force. Not one union has been asked for input as to what can be done to protect its members. In short, OCA is not entertaining any dialogue with the unions regarding the protection of its members.
The Governor has taken drastic steps to limit the spread of this virus. He has taken steps that will hurt in the short term but will pay dividends by saving lives in the long term. The Office of Court Administration still has not taken the drastic steps that we believe are necessary to protect court employees and the general public. Yesterday Judge Marks, two weeks after this union first raised its concerns about exposure of court employees to the virus, finally issued a directive reducing courthouse traffic. This is a step in the right direction but OCA needs to do more. Court employees are still at high risk to exposure. The longer it takes for OCA to take more drastic steps in limiting courthouse traffic, the chances of exposing court employees and the general public increases.
In the meantime, your union will continue to communicate as much as possible with OCA and push for stronger protocols to protect our members. With the most recent scare in District Court this past week, I had contacted OCA several times over the last couple of days and they still have not returned my calls. Locally I am told that public areas of the courthouses are being cleaned thoroughly every single day. As far as our personal workspace is concerned, I would not rely on somebody else to keep that area clean. The only way to ensure that your personal space is clean would be to clean it yourselves. Wipe down your own keyboards, telephones, and desktops. Use the provided hand sanitizers, keeping in mind that hand sanitizers are not a substitute for soap and water. If you are not feeling well please stay home. Do not come to work and get anybody sick. This is not the time to come to work and tough it out. If you stay home, you will have to use your own accruals. If you are under quarantine or self quarantine your accruals will not be charged but remember that quarantine and self quarantine must be substantiated with a doctors note.
Please relay any specific concerns or problems concerning your particular title or job function to your delegate and ask them to contact us. We will try to get an answer for you. I will try to keep you informed as this situation continues to evolve. We are all frustrated but remember that this union is fighting as hard as it can on your behalf. We will not stop and we will persist