As a rank-and-file employee of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, Anna G. says she’s been forced to go into the office twice a week for the last three weeks.
She comes into the building with her own mask, wipes and sanitizer, and hopes that by the end of the day she doesn’t contract the coronavirus.
“I recognize we have a job to do, but at the end of the day no one should be put in a position where it’s your life or your job,” says Anna, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from upper management.
Kevin C., a fellow non-management colleague who asked to withhold his name for the same reason, says he’s incredulous that the housing agency has forced its employees to come back into the office twice a week.
“It’s bulls--t,” he says. “Katherine [Harasz, head of the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara since 2016] writes these grand emails that she cares about us as employees, but when it comes down to it she doesn't give a crap about us. We’re coming in while she’s sitting at home working.”
San Jose Inside placed a call into Harasz’s office number on Friday morning and was told she was working from home. She had yet to return a message for comment by press time.
However, in emails obtained by this news organization, Harasz tells employees about the phasing-in process to start coming into the office again—even though the county public health order requires employers to keep as many people to work from home as possible.
In one of the notices, Harasz writes: “Unfortunately, the teleworking is taking its toll on coordination of work, communication regarding work and resolution of work issues. In addition to having access to their co-workers, those working at home don’t have access to high functioning office equipment, wet signatures, files and office supplies. Considering this, we have reviewed the teleworking need, building capacity, and overall impact on operations and determined that all staff need to have access to the building on a more regular basis to effectively carry out assigned work.”
Anna and Kevin say the rationale for coming back in is bogus.
Both of the Housing Authority workers says there isn’t a single thing they can do in the office that they couldn’t accomplish from home.
In fact, since the building can’t be close to full capacity due to public health and safety guidelines, Anna says communication with her fellow employees is actually less effective since there are two staggered shifts. Under Harasz’s directive, employees could pick one of two shifts—either 6am to noon or 1 to 7pm.
“I actually have to call people who are not in the building at the same time I am,” Anna remarked in a recent interview. “How does that improve communication when I can make that same call from home?”
says Kevin: “Using infrastructure as a reason for us having to go into the office is a lie.”
Kevin say he’s spoken to people from different departments who agree that non-management employees can work just as effectively from home as they could from the office. After all, he adds, they’ve been working from home for the last four months.
“For Katherine to use any excuse that we can’t get quality work done from home is ridiculous,” he tells San Jose Inside.
If it’s no benefit to come into the office, he wonders, then why are employees being forced into an unnecessary health risk—if not a disaster waiting to happen?
In a Wall Street Journal report, the first wave of Covid-19 lawsuits against companies over worker deaths have begun, even as employers have taken steps to combat the virus, including screening employees and face mask requirements.
Yet Anna says Housing Authority employees aren’t getting screened or their temperature checked before entry into the building—a major red flag if there ever was one.
“No gloves are available, and I saw one bottle of hand sanitizer in the kitchen and another one in the bathroom next to the sink, which absolutely makes zero sense,” she says. “And if you want to get a mask, it’s my impression you have to go down to HR, at which point you’ve touched many things in the building.”
Anna and Kevin say it’s obvious why employees are being forced to go back to the office.
“It’s a control thing ... we’ve always been extremely micromanaged,” Anna says. “Even if you’re an exempt employee, God forbid you’re more than five minutes late for anything, or you’re treated like you’re non-exempt.”
Anna describes a work environment where some employees feel like they’re constantly on pins and needles. “There’s such a controlling factor that goes on here even in regards to going to the bathroom,” she says. “Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Am I taking too much time here in the bathroom?’ Katherine might think no one is doing their work from home—which couldn’t be further from the truth—so I guess in her mind you shove employees into the building. But that’s stupid because we all know you can waste just as much time in the office on your computer as you can from home if we were actually doing that. It’s a control factor that has always been the case here, but this time it’s dangerous.”
Anna says Harasz has come into the office one time in the last three weeks, and Kevin says he hasn’t seen the executive director much more than that, if at all.
“If I’m a leader of an organization and tell my workers to do something, then I’m going to lead by example and come into the office,” Kevin says. “She can even self-quarantine in her 600-square-foot office, or however big it is. But she isn’t doing that. Why wouldn’t she come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m doing exactly what I’m telling you to do.’”
To compound matters, workers have found few avenues in the way of help. They filed complaints to the county Public Health Department and District Attorney Jeff Rosen—to no avail. A portion of the agency’s workforce are members of SEIU, which asked Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez to push Harasz to switch back the employees to full-time teleworking.
Those pleas, too, fell on deaf ears.
“Cindy came back to the union and said there was nothing she could do,” says Kevin, who expressed tremendous frustration with Chavez. “Her big initiative is getting employees of public agencies and businesses in the area to work from home. My question is if she is the president of the Board of Supervisors who overlooks the housing authority and can’t get this agency to do a simple thing for the safety of our workers, then how is she going to accomplish a grander initiative?”
In an ironic twist, Anna and Kevin say the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] is giving the local housing agency additional money to create the infrastructure to work from home. “We know for a fact the money is there because it’s specific to the CARES Act,” Anna says. “But where is that money going?”
Adds Kevin: “HUD has put a fund out to get a company’s infrastructure up and working so people can telework, and the housing authority has chosen not to do that.”
According to Anna, the agency sent out an email last last notifying staff that two employees had been exposed to the virus. Anna alerted a co-worker who was in the office the first week but absent the last two. Even though Anna maintained a safe distance from the specific person in question, she says the fact she could’ve been exposed to the virus while the company ostensibly turned a blind eye is downright irresponsible.
“When I raised the possibility that I was exposed to the virus, a couple of managers said I was fine,” Anna says. “They both pushed my concerns aside. It’s common knowledge in the office that more than two people contracted the virus and that many more got exposed. When I tried to get answers, I was told to give up and it was highly suggested that I be quiet. If the county is so big on contact tracing, then why aren’t you telling people you’ve been exposed? It totally defeats the purpose. You have to question Katherine and ask what is the point. If someone dies, was it worth it?”