The unions representing more than 6,000 state Department of Correction employees contend correction officers and healthcare staff are short on personal protective equipment but say they were told by officials to not use their own even as more correction officers and inmates are testing positive for COVID-19.
“We’re severely short on good masks to the point where we’re having staff purchase their own,” said Michael Tuthill, President of AFSCME Local 1565. “But the commissioner (Rollin Cook) said we can’t do that.”
The unions want stronger protections and protocols that they say are lacking. They say they have complained repeatedly about the screening process that is supposed to ensure staff is symptom-free, and they say continues to be flawed. They take issue with the quarantine measures in place and there has been no release of figures to union officials on how many employees are absent because they have been exposed to the virus.
DOC officials said in response to the issues raised by the unions that they have been working with the unions on all of the issues. In deliveries March 17 and 27, 17,000 surgical masks were delivered to all 14 facilities and every facility has a supply of N95 respirator masks and “a policy for their use.”
Other issues are being addressed including a “phased in operational plan” which allows the agency to open up or restrict movement of inmates when needed “based on the scenario,” according to Karen Martucci, a DOC spokeswoman.
Four inmates and the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ned Lamont and Cook on Friday, asking a judge to order the release of large numbers of certain types of inmates as the state girds for a significant increase in the number of people sickened by the novel coronavirus called COVID-19. There had been 132 fatalities as of Friday and 4,915 had tested positive for COVID-19, including 16 DOC employees and eight inmates.
Together, Tuthill, AFSCME Local 387 President Sean Howard and AFSCME Local 391 President Collin Provost represent about 4,500 correction officers, parole officers, counselors and commissary and transport staff. They say there is a shortage of protective equipment and few established protocols for dealing with the public health crisis in the prisons, which house about 12,000 inmates.
The unions have bought 10,000 masks from a Massachusetts company but they don’t know whether DOC officials will allow their members to use them.
“The department is not supplying enough masks,” Tuthill said. “They want us to go to the cloth masks that the inmates are making but those aren’t adequate. I guess they are better than breathing straight air.”
Martucci, the DOC spokeswoman, responded, “Our purchase requests are grouped with all statewide requests and distributed based on priority levels which include considerations for community hospitals and nursing homes.”
The unions that represent administrative and clerical staff, correction supervisors and healthcare workers are also calling for more protections including masks for all employees, a limit to how many people can come into the prisons and a ban on requiring clerical staff to enter the prisons and parole offices unnecessarily during the pandemic.
“The consequences of an inadequate response to the outbreak will be devastating for workers, people who are incarcerated and our communities,” said Rebecca Simonsen, lead organizer for SEIU 1199 NE, which represents healthcare workers in the prisons. “Union members in DOC are united in demanding the administration take decisive action by marshalling every possible resource to protect the safety of all workers, inmates, and our communities across the state.”
Since March 23, the DOC has had an outside company take the temperature of every employee who enters the building to determine if they could be presenting symptoms, said Tuthill, Howard and Provost.
The problem, the trio said, is that the infrared equipment used by the company has continually malfunctioned with the temperatures reading between 85 and 92 degrees. Employees are still allowed to work even though their temperature readings are obviously inaccurate, the three said.
“I have been tested at five different facilities and I haven’t registered above 94 degrees yet,” Provost said. The human resources department within the DOC was notified of the problem on March 25, March 27 and March 30, Provost said. “They said on March 30 that they were under the assumption the company had changed the way they were taking temperatures,” Provost said.
“We are addressing concerns related to inconsistencies with the thermometers,” Martucci said. The agency attributed some of the below normal readings to the fact that the temperatures were being taken outside in colder weather, she said. The temperatures now will be taken as the employees are sitting in vehicles entering the facilities, Martucci said.
Corrections officers who are dealing with inmates who have tested positive for the virus have not been given gowns, masks or face shields, the union officials said. At the same time, state police dropped off an offender at York Correctional Institution while wearing full protective gear including gowns, and then left before processing the woman, said Aaron Lichwalla, vice president of AFSCME Local 387.
“That’s not the procedure,” Lichwalla said. “Normally state police process the offender. They claimed the inmate said her uncle had the virus and she was around him. They just said, ‘Here,’ and left.”
Inmates are still being allowed to play cards, basketball and handball – all of which take place closer than the six-foot separation necessary to stop the spread of the virus, the unions said. Tuthill claimed some inmates who have tested positive are being “quarantined” in a dormitory with more than 100 other inmates.
“We have empty buildings all over the place. There should have been a facility opened where they could put those who tested positive or have symptoms. If you have 116 inmates in a wide-open room, you get one or two who get sick and they are polluting the entire place,” Tuthill said.
Martucci said no offenders who have tested positive are in a dormitory setting. She said the unions have been engaged in discussions about the “phased approach” which allows staff to open or restrict movements in the facilities based on the circumstances.
Tuthill said DOC officials have no accurate count of how many staff and inmates could have the virus since employees are told to seek medical advice from their healthcare providers who may or may not recommend a test and prison healthcare staff have stopped testing since they are running out of tests.
The DOC has not released information that a staff member at Manson Youth Institute, which houses males ages 18 to 21, has tested positive for COVID-19 and that two recruits in the DOC’s academy for correction officers also have tested positive, Lichwalla said.
However, the DOC does post the number of positive tests on its website.
DOC employees routinely have had to fight for the same protections that Lamont is granting other state employees including two weeks paid time off to deal with the COVID-19 situation and two-thirds pay for those DOC employees who are pregnant but hesitant to work out of fear of contracting the virus, said Michael Vargo, vice president of AFSCME Local 1565.
“We understand as union officials that we are hazardous duty, but as state employees we’re eligible for 14 days sick time, which the DOC is telling us we may not be,” Vargo said. “It shouldn’t be a fight whether we are eligible or not. We should have the same rights as other state employees.”
Union officials are proud that the membership is doing the work every day during the public health crisis, Provost said. But Cook needs to do more to protect them, they said. “The employees do not feel that this commissioner has the back of staff at all,” Howard, Tuthill and Provost said.