Unions representing more than 4,000 marshals, public defenders and other court staff want the top Judicial Branch administrators to sit down with them to address workplace safety concerns as COVID-19 cases continue to escalate.
Thus far, Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll III and Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson have declined to meet with officials from the “Judicial Branch Union Coalition.” The coalition encompasses about a half-dozen unions including those representing Division of Criminal Justice employees, probation officers and marshal supervisors.
“The first eight days of December already show more cases than all of April,” when the Judicial Branch went into “a maximum closure model,” according to a Dec. 14 letter sent to Carroll and Robinson.
From Dec. 1 to Dec. 14, 60 people who had contact with Judicial Branch operations, including four members of the public, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Keith Furniss, a probation officer and vice president of the Judicial Professional Employees Union, AFT Local 4200-B.
“We have sat down with management including Gary Roberge, (the executive director of the Court Support Services Division) and they have been great,” said Robert Moreau, a probation officer who is the President of the JPE union. “But we feel like we need to speak to the people making the decisions.”
The coalition wants Carroll and Robinson to discuss their concerns including enforcement of an agreement that allowed Branch employees to return to work in July, and a reduction in the number of members of the public allowed to enter courthouses.
Moreau and Furniss say that the agreement, which was drafted to outline employee protections when they returned to full court operations in September, isn’t always being followed.
In some cases, as with any shared workspace, Moreau says it’s hard to social distance.
“We were working from home during the height of the pandemic but by September a lot of people were back at the worksites. We saw a spike and the number of positive cases were starting to raise back up,” Moreau said.
According to figures supplied to the unions by the Judicial Branch, there were 11 positive cases associated with court operations in September, 31 in October and 114 in November, Furniss said. Some of the cases involved the public, although most were Judicial Branch employees, he said.
Unions which include Judicial Branch and Division of Criminal Justice Employees, AFSCME Local 749, Judicial Marshals, IBPO Local 371, Judicial Supervising Marshals CSEA SEIU Local 2001 and Public Defenders Attorneys, AFSCME Local 381 sent Carroll and Robinson their first letter asking for a meeting on Nov. 24.
That letter pointed out that the Branch failed “to honor its agreement” to put safety first by maintaining telework “where feasible.”
When the unions didn’t receive a response, they sent a second letter on Dec. 14 again asking for a meeting. They also pointed out that old courthouses and cramped quarters are conditions ripe to spread the virus which has killed 5,552 state residents including a 32-year-old probation officer who worked at the Stamford courthouse.
In one instance, a computer glitch put 256 cases on the docket on the same day in Waterbury, which union officials said likely led to more COVID-19 infections.
The unions are asking for Judicial Branch contact tracing efforts to be revised. All Judicial employees are required to fill out daily contact information forms naming the locations they spent time and individuals with whom they had more than 15 minutes of contact during a 24-hour period. The union alleges that supervisors have been “interfering with good faith reports of contacts,” modifying results, and intimidating employees from providing accurate information. They say they are concerned that names are being removed.
In an email statement, Carroll denied any interference with contact-tracing forms.
“The allegations raised by the union regarding the contact information sheets are not true,” Carroll wrote. “In fact, we have discussed this issue with the union many times. Our No. 1 concern with the daily contact sheets is that they are accurately completed, and that all who are in CDC-defined close contact with an employee are listed. Inaccurate contact sheets lead to delays in informing those who need to quarantine to do so in a timely manner.”
Carroll said he and Robinson are reviewing “the letter.” Carroll did not specify which union letter was under review.
The Branch has been continually meeting with the unions to address employees’ concerns and it has implemented some of the unions’ suggestions after the meetings, Carroll said.
“The Branch is committed to continuing to take all steps necessary to provide the highest level of safety and protection to its employees, judges and stakeholders while still carrying out its critical constitutional obligations,” Carroll said.
Furniss maintains that the unions aren’t asking for courthouse closures which occurred last spring and summer. “We’re not necessarily saying that we have to cut back on court business,” Furniss said. “We just want to look at the manner in which it’s done.”