After COVID-19 outbreaks and the deaths of several court interpreters who worked in Los Angeles County courthouses, California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal/OSHA) plans to fine the local court system more than $25,000 for multiple violations.
In a notice to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Cal/OSHA identified at least three health and safety violations, two of which it deemed serious.
The violations stem from the working conditions and safety measures put in place for court interpreters who provided services at in-person hearings, trials, and meetings for attorneys and criminal defendants during the pandemic.
“Is it enough to fine them [the courts] that? I’m not going to make the judgment. But I think something had to happen,” said Michael Ferreira, president of the California Federation of Interpreters, the union representing court interpreters in Los Angeles County and across the state. “My view is things definitely could have been done better, and apparently, Cal/OSHA agreed with that concept.”
Begonya De Salvo, an interpreter at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse and a union steward for the California Federation of Interpreters, called the fines validation for interpreters who have felt like they’ve been treated like second-class citizens while colleagues perished.
“We had been sounding the alarm before they died, before they got sick. And we were not heard,” De Salvo said, adding that the fines, while significant, were not enough. “It’s not completely what we want. We want people held accountable for their actions.”
In late 2020, about 16 court interpreters at the Los Angeles County Superior Court, including De Salvo, were potentially exposed to COVID-19 after an interpreter tested positive. According to the California Federation of Interpreters, that interpreter was not permitted by her bosses to quarantine at home on paid leave, even though others in the courtroom with her were able to quarantine.
According to state records, 14 of the interpreters self-quarantined, but two did not out of fear of being fired. One interpreter who continued working, Sergio Cafaro, was hospitalized with COVID-19 and died on January 12. Two other court employees died in January. In February, a contract interpreter died after spending 41 days in the hospital.
Cafaro’s death led Cal/OSHA to investigate conditions at the courthouse. According to the investigative findings, the agency found no violations directly related to Cafaro’s death. However, the agency did find three violations at the courthouse, including the court’s failure to immediately notify Cal/OSHA that an employee was seriously ill and hospitalized with COVID-19 in early January.
Ann Donlan, communications director for the Los Angeles County Superior Court, disputed the alleged violations identified by Cal/OSHA and said administrative records cast doubt on the basis for the penalties.
“The court will be appealing these alleged violations because we do not believe Cal/OSHA has complete information,” Donlan said.
Meanwhile, De Salvo said colleagues are still dealing with grief.
“Sergio should be here today—he should not have died,” she said. “These fines will not bring Sergio back. But at least it says that something was wrong and that we are not crazy.”
Author: Hamilton, Matt
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