From employee sick time to 300 unscheduled trips to the hospital for inmates with COVID-19, state Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros told the Appropriations Committee Tuesday that the pandemic was responsible for the agency’s $4 million budget deficiency in fiscal year 2021.
“As of today, employees have used 220,000 hours of COVID leave,” Quiros said. “That’s 222,000 hours that I have to hire a correction officer or nurse or nurse supervisor at time-and-a-half.”
But Quiros also said that the DOC was having a hard time hiring and retaining medical staff, which is also driving up overtime, and close to 60 health care staff are eligible to retire in 2022.
As of March 19, the DOC had a $2 million shortfall in personal services and a $2 million shortfall in inmate medical services. Some of the deficiency will be made up by a surplus of $350,000 in the Board of Pardons and Parole account due to vacancies, Quiros said.
But Quiros repeated several times that the complexities of dealing with a pandemic within the state’s prison system was driving up overtime including the hours that his staff was allowed to take as state employees if they contracted COVID, needed to isolate or were having child care issues because of the pandemic.
The agency had been on track to see a 5% reduction in overtime in fiscal year 2020 as requested by the legislature, Quiros said. But then the pandemic hit in March of 2020, requiring employees at all 14 corrections facilities to take on additional duties, he said.
“The whole operational piece when it comes to COVID-19 is creating the overtime,” Quiros said.
That included 300 trips to the hospital for inmates with at least two correction officers required for each trip, Quiros said.
Each facility was required to implement quarantine areas for asymptomatic inmates who test positive for COVID-19 and quarantine areas for people coming into the system. In addition, the medical units at Northern and MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institutions were beefed up to deal with symptomatic inmates.
As of Tuesday, there were 37 staff members recovering from COVID-19, 26 symptomatic inmates, and 52 asymptomatic inmates. There was one inmate in the hospital as of April 9 and 27 inmates in the MacDougall-Walker medical unit with COVID-19, according to the agency’s website.
Since the start of the pandemic, 4,394 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 19 inmates died from complications of the disease. As of Tuesday, 4,362 inmates or a little less than 50% have been vaccinated against COVID-19. About 45% of staff have also been vaccinated.
The DOC has been sued twice by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut over the agency’s pandemic response and union members have been vocal complaining that they were not provided with enough protection as the pandemic tore through the facilities last spring and this winter.
Medical staffing and practices have been an issue at the DOC for several years with inmates or their families filing lawsuits over alleged improper medical care including wrongful deaths. Legislators recently agreed to give the DOC close to $20 million to provide screening and treatment to inmates for Hepatitis C after a judge agreed that a class action suit filed against the agency could move forward.
That money didn’t count toward the $4 million deficiency in the fiscal year 2021 budget. The DOC had the highest overtime tab of any state agency in 2020 – at $90 million – according to the state comptroller’s OpenPayroll website. Quiros stated that was because the agency had to to backfill staff who were out on COVID-19 leave. Hundreds of staff have tested positive for COVID-19 but the agency does not regularly post the figure on its website with other coronavirus data.
Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, had to ask Quiros twice if the bulk of the vacancies were nurses before he admitted that the agency was having a hard time hiring nurses, a problem he attributed to low wages.
“Starting salaries are not competitive,” he said. He’s also short on correction officers, he added.
The agency currently has 629 health care staff, he said. Since January of 2019, about six months after the DOC took over medical care for inmates from UConn’s Correctional Managed Healthcare, the agency has hired 240 health staff, Quiros said. At the same time, it lost 391 to transfers, terminations and other departures, he said.
“It’s not just the hiring of nurses, it’s the retention of staff,” Quiros said.
As of today, the agency’s staffing level was 87%, he said. “We had 222,000 hours of sick time since March of 2020,” Quiros said. “Even if I were at 100% capacity, overtime would still skyrocket.”