Courtesy of SEIU 1199
Nurses protest outside the prison complex in Somers and Enfield (Courtesy of SEIU 1199)

SOMERS, CT — Healthcare staffing shortages at Osborn Correctional Institution during the coronavirus pandemic are putting inmates and employees at risk, according to union officials who staged a protest Monday near the prison in Somers.

“We’re trying our best,” said Gabby Bottino, a licensed practical nurse and infectious disease manager who works at Osborn. “We care for our patients, we’re advocating for our patients. We want more bodies in here so we can protect our patients and protect ourselves.”

About two dozen healthcare workers including Bottino and fellow LPN Indria Mitto and correction officers turned out to show their support for the union’s call for the state to provide more incentives such as bonuses to attract qualified people who are willing to work within Connecticut’s prison healthcare system.

“You can’t hire if your incentives and benefits are not comparable with the private sector, especially if you are in a war zone,” said Pedro Zayas, Communications Director for the New England Healthcare Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU NE. “The problem is that there seems to be no sense of urgency.”

The entire state Department of Correction has been running with a severe shortage of healthcare employees, including nurses, for nearly two years, said Nat Roosa, an organizer with the union which represents 600 healthcare workers employed by the DOC.

Staff is being augmented by work agency nurses who don’t understand the prison environment, Mitto said.

“They aren’t trained and they don’t know safety and security,” Mitto said. “Some are good and some are not good and they aren’t trained and we aren’t in a position to do that. We’re working doubles and when you do that repeatedly your mind is drained.”

There have been times when every nurse at Osborn is working a double shift every time they worked, Mitto said.

People who have been hired already quit due to the pressures of working within a prison without adequate training, Bottino and Mitto said. “Being in a prison and being in the private sector is totally different,” Mitto said.

The nurses contracted through an agency are only supposed to work when there is a staffing emergency, but the DOC is hiring them on a daily basis since staffing is so low, Bottino said.

“I had meetings with the Commissioner in December before COVID and all of our suggestions weren’t utilized,” Bottino said.

By union figures, Osborn, which had the highest number of inmates test positive for COVID-19 and was home to six of the seven inmates who died from the disease, has the greatest shortage of staff: 24 vacancies including 14 unfilled nursing positions.

“We’ve been short-staffed throughout the DOC and at this point we’re in a multi-year campaign to get staff hired,” Roosa said. “About a year ago it became apparent that staffing at Osborn was a whole different ball game for understaffing and despite repeated meetings with management, it’s only getting worse.”

But DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook, who announced Friday his intention to leave the agency as of July 1, contends that he has continually made strides in hiring and improving the overall structure of the healthcare unit which was transferred to the agency in July of 2018.

“To my point, 11 existing healthcare vacancies at the Osborn Correctional Institution are in the final stages of the hiring process,” Cook said. “Additionally the Department of Correction now employs more than 70 additional health services staff members than it did just one year ago – with upwards of 40 healthcare employees being hired since March 1, alone.”

DOC officials dispute the number of vacancies the union claims, saying there are only 11 at Osborn. Cook called the union’s tactics “counterproductive.”

“To be sure it is difficult enough to attract qualified candidates during these trying times, especially when the healthcare workers’ union leadership strategy to attract workers is to publicly campaign about their working conditions and unjustly claim that our administration is taking no action to address this critical issue,” Cook said.

The agency hired a total of 138 healthcare workers in the past year – but several positions opened up in the same time frame due to retirements. Healthcare workers are among the highest-paid employees at the DOC due to the amount of overtime they work, according to the state comptroller’s OpenPayroll website.

The agency was down at least 150 healthcare workers last year, according to information supplied to the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican caucus. The union estimated that the DOC actually needed 250 hires to fill all vacant healthcare positions.

Besides the open positions, the union says there is an issue with required overtime. Healthcare staff at Osborn are routinely “mandated” to work three extra eight-hour shifts a week, Roosa said. Employees are required to work the extra shift or they could lose their jobs, Zayas added.

“They are worried about getting sick and they are worried about bringing it home to their families,” Zayas said. “The more you are exposed and the less sleep you get, it’s more difficult to maintain your health.”

Osborn has a large elderly inmate population and a “high-acuity” population with more inmates who require routine medical attention than some of the other prisons, Roosa said.

Bottino and Mitto deal with a wide range of inmates including those who need mental health, complex medical treatments such as chemotherapy and hospice. But the inmate-to-staff ratio hasn’t been reevaluated in years, both said.

“You name it in the private sector, we have it at Osborn,” Bottino said.

The prison has been heavily impacted by COVID-19 with about 25% of its 1,000 inmates testing positive for the disease. Osborn was placed in lockdown on May 15 after dozens of inmates tested positive for the disease.

Many of the inmates were asymptomatic but had to be quarantined and checked by medical staff during every shift, Roosa said. “So you’re taking a nursing staff that’s already thin and now they have to check the vitals of hundreds of people each shift,” Roosa said.

The union wants the DOC to provide bonuses and other incentives to get people hired faster, Roosa said. “The only thing that we can think of to get people to want to get hired is a sign-on bonus or a recruitment or retention bonus,” Roosa said. “The bonuses would pay for themselves by cutting overtime.”