Vaccine mandate without testing option forcing shortage of Superior Court staffing

Staff shortages are affecting the availability of court minutes, the scheduling of interpreters and the court’s ability to process more than one prospective jury at a time.|

A vaccine-related shortage of court staff is delaying Sonoma County Superior Court business from records offices to courtrooms, picking juries and potentially even releasing jail inmates.

Court workers, who are state employees, had an Oct. 21 deadline to show proof they were vaccinated against COVID-19. Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior and Presiding Judge Brad DeMeo gave employees no testing option in their joint order to court staff.

The lack of workers has caused a cascading array of problems in the administration of the county’s judicial system, which handles thousands of criminal, civil, juvenile and family law cases each month, several sources who work in the Hall of Justice said.

The workers’ union, Service Employees International Union, said the mandate without testing has pushed out about 10 of the 97 represented court employees — either through unplanned retirements, finding other jobs or simply quitting.

Another half-dozen have taken unpaid leaves of absence or are using their accrued paid leave until they decide what to do, said Wendell Phillips, an SEIU steward. An additional five to eight non-represented workers have left because of the mandate, he said.

Junior did not respond to numerous requests over several days seeking information about staffing, how many of her staff have shown proof of vaccination or how many have left because of the mandate.

The county’s 4,400 workers, including the prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and bailiffs who work inside courtrooms, have the option to be tested if they refuse the vaccine. Court workers were told they could not come to work without proof of vaccination.

“We had collectively about 100 years of court experience leave in the last couple weeks,” Phillips said. “This could have been handled so much better than it was.”

The courts must meet and confer with SEIU for such a change in working conditions, but Phillips said Junior and court negotiators were unwilling to compromise.

“The union offered many solutions to help alleviate the situation: testing, working remotely, things like that,” Phillips said. “The court denied every single proposal the union brought up to try to help maintain staffing. The court just was not interested.”

The staffing shortage has caused a delay in recording minutes from more than 4,000 court proceedings. Court clerks typically enter that information — the official record of what happens in a courtroom and what a judge orders — into the court’s case management system soon after hearings conclude. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and others rely on that information for their cases and to advise clients.

The information also informs jail and other court personnel what should happen next with a defendant, like if they have been released into a treatment program or if the Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Justice should be notified of a change in a defendant’s status.

Minutes also show jail personnel if someone has been ordered released. Those minutes are typically done first, said interim Assistant Public Defender Lynne Stark-Slater.

“Historically, there’s been an effort to prioritize those minutes. The first ones entered are the ones that affect release,” she said.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said his department hasn’t experienced any delays in releasing inmates due to backlogged minute entry.

Minutes also allow the probation department to enroll someone in court-ordered work-release programs. Judges typically order defendants to sign up for those programs within 10 days; if the minutes aren’t entered, the probation department can’t begin that process.

Staff shortages are also preventing the courts from being able to select more than one jury at a time, another attorney said.

Court business has occasionally ground to a halt in the past couple of weeks when language interpreters aren’t available. Judicial system workers have reported seeing courts sit idle, with judges, attorneys and defendants waiting for long periods of time until an interpreter arrives.

“We’ve had to wait sometimes hours to get an interpreter,” said Stark-Slater, who estimated about 20% of criminal cases require interpreters.

The problem isn’t a lack of interpreters, Phillips said, it’s because the clerk who schedules and coordinates interpreters’ appearances in several courtrooms left because of the mandate.

Longer than usual lines at the criminal court clerk’s records office have been reported and members of the public have been told there will be delays of as long as 10 days to receive copies of public documents.

Interim Public Defender Jeff Mitchell said the delay in entering minutes has been a problem for his staff, in addition to longer waits at the clerks’ offices to view files or put cases on the calendar.

“There are times I’ve gone over there and the line is so long I give up and leave,” he said. “Since I work there, I can keep coming back, but the public can’t necessarily do that.”

Sonoma County is one of only two county court systems among the 58 statewide that has enacted a mandate that doesn’t allow for testing, SEIU spokeswoman Jennie Smith-Camejo said. The other is Los Angeles County, which recently announced that 99% of its Superior Court employees had either provided proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or requested a medical or religious exemption.

“Others either have no mandate or allow for testing instead,” Smith-Camejo said. “But Sonoma County courts are refusing to negotiate on that at all.”

Phillips said the courts were already understaffed before the mandate, but the number of people who have left may have surprised management.

SEIU represents clerical staff, court clerks, legal processors, software analysts, those in information technology, purchasing and stenographers, who record official court proceedings.

“No matter who is leaving or who’s left or who’s going to get terminated, all that work falls back onto the people who are left here,” he said. “Then to be that inflexible, it seems silly to me over a test. I get people’s feelings on the vaccine. The court employees themselves are safe. They’re educated people. We’ve had no real incidents of people getting terribly sick from COVID.

“To not offer testing seems almost punitive.”

One new mother had safety concerns about getting a vaccine while breast-feeding, but her only recourse was to take unpaid leave, Phillips said.

“I am one of those seriously distressed that they didn’t offer testing,” he said. “The court is severely deprived of good workers that have been here a long time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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