Kern County Superior Court employees from two separate labor unions continue to be wary of further staff reductions and furloughs come the new fiscal year. And court management should butt out of employees use of social media postings, they say. More on that in a little bit.

But one of the most pressing issues comes from court interpreters, who claim Kern County Superior Court management is not doing nearly enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19 at work.

That concern was amplified earlier this month with the deaths of at least three employees — two interpreters and a court clerk — at Los Angeles Superior Court. According to the watchdog nonprofit group Court Watch Los Angeles, interpreter Sergio Cafaro died after the virus spread among a group of interpreters and other staff at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. This hits home with interpreters at Kern County Superior Court, who are a tight-knit group.

One interpreter told me she believes interpreters are among the most vulnerable employees because management isn't allowing them to work from home or do interpreting over Zoom. Additionally, there are no temperature checks or questions asked about COVID-19 symptoms when people enter any of the local courthouses. I asked Kern County Superior Court management: What specific measures are in place to protect interpreters from contracting COVID-19 at work?

"Everyone in the courtroom is required to wear a face covering," Public Affairs Officer Kristin Davis wrote in an email. "Interpreter headsets allow for social distancing. Mobile plexiglass is available." As for temperature checks, Davis wrote these are not a reliable or foolproof method for detecting COVID-19 as many people are asymptomatic and it could provide a false sense of security. Such a process would be too costly and the court system does not have qualified employees to administer temperature checks, wrote Davis.

Interpreters also claim management does not take them seriously.

"To Kern, we are overdressed immigrants," said Janet Hudec, vice president of California Federation of Interpreters Local 39000, which represents the roughly 17 certified court interpreters in Kern County. She claims courts in general don't want interpreters as employees.

"In the last four years, Kern has made it a priority to pay contractors more to discourage employment. By paying contractors two to four times more than what employees earn takes away an incentive (to be a court employee)," said Hudec.

Not true, replied Davis.

"The Court continues to recruit interpreters and there are several positions open right now," Davis wrote in an email.

But there is something else puzzling here. While all court employees are obligated to take 1.5 hours of unpaid leave every pay period due to budget cuts, this furlough does not apply to interpreters, said Michael Ferreira, president of CIF Local 39000.

The court has two separate budgets, one for operations and the other for what's called "language access," which includes interpreters. Ferreira claims Kern has no business imposing the furlough on interpreters because the language access budget is not facing any budget reductions as opposed to operations. However, the court now obligates all 17 or so interpreters to go to the downtown courthouse and spend 1.5 hours per pay period in a room. In the middle of a pandemic.

Right about now I'm expecting someone to shout: "Objection, your honor!" On what grounds? On the grounds it kinda sounds like lack of common sense. Or at least detention. CFI filed a complaint with OSHA over this as well as alleging unfair labor practice.

Court management denies this was done out of retaliation. Davis issued the following response: "CFI did not agree to the furlough. Therefore, interpreters are required to stay the 1.5 hours for which they are being paid. During that time, interpreters are in the jury assembly room, which is designed to safely hold 50 people. Additionally, there is an outdoor patio. We are not able to comment on the complaint as it is an ongoing grievance."

Voicing similar concerns over budget cuts impacting other court employees is the Service Employees International Union Local 521, SEIU. Union representative Delia Serrano criticized the unpaid leave as a result of fiscal mismanagement by Court Executive Officer Tamarah Harber-Pickens, claiming she created new top-level jobs that pay at least $100,000 annually.

"There is no mismanagement of court funds; if anything court management has done a better job than many courts," Davis replied to Serrano's claims. Davis points out the furlough for Kern court employees comes out to a total of 4.5 days of furlough time for one year. In comparison, other counties such as Riverside have one to two days per month, Ventura County 18 furlough days a year. Additionally, Santa Clara courts have laid off 52 employees and has 26 furlough days while San Mateo County laid off 20 employees and has 12 furlough days a year. In the last year, four Kern court employees have been laid off, said Davis. Pickens also created one executive management position, deputy CEO of facilities with starting pay at $107,362 a year. The position of assistant CEO was eliminated, which paid $115,702 per year.

As for the new policy on social media, SEIU and Kern Court management came to an understanding.

"We agreed that we're not going to bash the courts or criticize court superiors on Facebook," said labor rep Serrano. Among other things, court employees are prohibited from accessing social media on court technology and cannot discuss, post or leak confidential court information and shall only communicate personal opinions.

So what's next? Will Kern courts see more layoffs or pay cuts? Labor and management agree it depends largely how much funding comes in to Kern County from the governor's proposed budget for 2021-22.

"Without further analysis and without an approved and final budget, it is impossible to speculate about next year," Davis said.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.