EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a sudden change in county policy toward inclement weather.
FORT WORTH, Texas — Late in the afternoon on Friday, an email was sent to Tarrant County district clerk staff warning of a “historic winter storm.”
District Clerk Tom Wilder encouraged his county employees to “stay on flat surfaces” and “allow extra time” to commute. He also warned that anyone who missed work would have to use personal or vacation time — or not be paid for the day.
That morning, Wilder penned a different kind of email to staff — one mourning the loss of an administrative clerk in the family law courts. Tiffany Gerred was one of six motorists who died in Thursday’s catastrophic 100-plus-car pile-up on I-35. “She was a beacon of light with her energetic personality,” Wilder said in the email.
Gerred was a young mother who had worked at the clerk’s office for several years, and by all reports, was popular and hard-working. As the close-knit Tarrant County legal community grapples with her loss, many are blaming what they characterize as the county’s draconian inclement weather policy for Gerred’s death. Though the county could at any point close its offices, it has consistently opened during inclement weather in order to perform what a high-ranking county official called "urgent legal services."
The loudest voice among the chorus of people demanding the county revisit its policy is local attorney Michael Schneider, whose firm specializes in family law. Schneider said he had countless interactions with Gerred over the years.
After Schneider made several posts on social media decrying the county’s inclement weather policy as unfair and unnecessarily risky, he said more than two dozen current and former district clerk employees reached out to thank him.
“What it all boils down to is this: Up until the ’80s or ’90s, it was not uncommon to have county closures when it was appropriate for the safety of the employees,” he said. “Then the essential employees — some of the people who worked for the Sheriff's department — made a good point. They said, ‘Look, if we start to come in and the county is closed, we should get a little bit of overtime for that. The county freaked out and basically said, ‘Then we're never going to close.’ They’d rather put people at risk than pay a little bit of overtime.”
A spokesperson for the county directed questions on its inclement weather policy to District Clerk Tom Wilder, who declined to comment on this story.
Spectrum News 1 did talk to a high-ranking official in the district clerk’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There are duties under the law that county offices have to perform, and they’ve got be there to do that,” the official said.
One example of a reason the county would keep its offices open would be to serve protective orders that might stop an abusive parent from coming into contact with their child. Those kinds of emergencies happen even during bad weather.
Legally, Wilder and County Judge Glen Whitley have the discretion to open or close county offices as they see fit. The governor and state attorney general’s office have reaffirmed that opinion in several cases.
For critics of the county like Schneider, the question isn’t whether they can open, but should the county’s top policymakers risk the lives of their employees.
“Tom Wilder has been in public power for so long,” he said. “He sets all the policy with almost no regard for the district’s clerks. There is no way that he couldn't do something to fix this. What happened to Tiffany [on Thursday] is just the most obvious result of this policy.”
He and other critics of the county point out that many staffers have already used their personal and vacation time to deal with the peculiarities of the pandemic and various school shutdowns.
“A lot of these people who are working for barely above minimum wage have already used their personal time to take care of their family, kids, and relatives with COVID. They cannot afford to take off any more time. Plus, based on the people I've talked to who work there, you don’t want to become the person who always has an excuse for not showing up when people are getting laid off left and right and the economy is bad. These are people who need these jobs.”
Other local district clerk offices, such as Dallas and Collin counties, were closed on Thursday for inclement weather. So far, Judge Glen Whitley, the county’s top official, hasn’t commented publicly on whether he will reevaluate the county’s inclement weather policy.
On Monday, February 15, county employees received a text message from District Attorney Sharen Wilson saying that all county buildings and offices will be closed on Tuesday, February 16. This marked the first time in decades that the county would shut down due to weather.
“Tiffany should have not been on the road [on Thursday],” Schneider said. “She did not have an essential job. She had an important job, but not one that had to be done [on Thursday]. None of the judges were most likely working. And, if you would've asked the judges, they would've said, ‘I don't need her today, let her stay on with her family.’”