By Anisha Girotra
LOS ANGELES—Ignoring the unsafe working conditions of LA courthouses and court interpreters unions’ requests for emergency paid sick leave and remote court hearings, LA Courts CEO Sheri R. Carter attributed the recent COVID-19 deaths and courthouse outbreaks to the failures of court employees rather than those of court administrators.
Over the past few weeks, there have been over a dozen LA court employees at Clara Shortridge-Foltz Courthouse and Bellflower Courthouse who have contracted COVID-19, with two court interpreters and a bailiff dying shortly after contracting the disease, as a result of the negligence of the court administration.
An initial press release by the California Federation of Interpreters, Local 39000 on January 22 detailed the preventable events that led to two of these court interpreters’ deaths, Sergio Cafaro and Daniel Felix. This release ultimately argued that the LA court administration needs to take “proactive preventive measures” when interpreters report exposure to COVID-19 as Cafaro and Felix did prior to their death.
The spread of COVID-19 at Clara Shortridge-Foltz Courthouse began on December 10 when a court reporter who worked in Department 32 tested positive for COVID-19. A female Spanish-language interpreter immediately reported the exposure she had with this court reporter to the court administration.
However, she was denied sick leave to quarantine and continued to work alongside seventeen other court interpreters until she received a positive test result three days later.
Following this positive result, the court administrators still did not see this outbreak as a pertinent issue, once again denying requests for sick leave to quarantine by interpreters she came into contact with. As a result, these interpreters continued to work and spread the virus, leading to one Spanish-language interpreter Sergio Cafaro contracting COVID-19 on December 18 and dying on January 12.
A similar chain of events occurred at Bellflower Courthouse when a female Spanish-language interpreter tested positive for COVID-19 on December 8 and informed her coworker and fellow interpreter Daniel Felix of her result. Despite informing his supervisor of his recent symptoms, Felix was told to keep working.
After working at the courthouse for two more days and coming in contact with more court employees, Felix tested positive for COVID-19 on December 17, was admitted to the hospital on December 20, and died on January 17.
On January 29 the Local 39000 by the California Federation of Interpreters issued a press release that was in response to the blame put on the court administration regarding the deaths of the LA court employees. CEO Sheri R. Carter, at a Town Hall meeting the day prior, insisted that the deaths were the fault of the employees rather than the courts.
She refused to acknowledge “the public health crisis still taking place in the county’s courthouses” and what measures the court administration could institute to minimize the deaths of additional court employees.
These two press releases specify the systemic issues in the LA court system that prompted these outbreaks to occur and the court administrators’ insufficient response to them.
While LA city and county laws require employers with more than 500 workers to provide paid sick leave to employees who need to take time off due to exposure to COVID-19, an executive order by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti explicitly excluded “employees of government agencies working within the course and scope of their public service employment.”
As a result, court administrators are not legally obligated to provide Emergency Paid Sick Leave, or EPSL, to court employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 and need to quarantine. In the case of the two court outbreaks mentioned earlier, court administrators did not authorize EPSL to court interpreters exposed to the virus until they received pressure from interpreter unions, long after the virus had spread to many court employees.
Furthermore, despite these outbreaks and recent deaths, LA county courthouses continue to have a large number of in-person hearings due to their inability to “create and adequately expand remote court hearings and services.”
In an article in the LA Times on February 5 regarding the spread of COVID-19 in LA courthouses, Matt Hamilton emphasized the lack of proper COVID protocols that have contributed to the endangerment of court employees and the general public, revealing that these courthouses do not require temperature checks for people entering and judges often allow lawyers and witnesses to take off their masks when speaking in the courtrooms.
Ultimately, as seen by LA Courts CEO Sheri R. Carter’s unsubstantiated claims at the Town Hall Meeting on January 28, the LA court system has refused to take responsibility for their policies and the actions of court administrators that resulted in the deaths of two Spanish-language interpreters and the infections of many court employees due to COVID-19.
Anisha Girotra is a writer for the LA Vanguard’s social justice desk. She is a biochemistry major at UCLA, originally from Scottsdale, AZ.
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