Staffing shortages at the state Department of Correction are forcing frontline staff to work repeated 16-hour shifts which is compromising the safety of employees and inmates, according to the unions representing more than 4,000 agency workers.

“When staffing levels are low, that includes health care workers and counselors,” said Brian Larson, a correction officer at Manson Youth Institution. “Counselors are handling double their caseload. The frontline staff can see when they (inmates) are agitated but we can’t get them treatment fast enough. The volatility is going up; we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

The agency has 400 vacancies – a number that could double by 2022 when 400 more DOC employees become eligible for retirement, said Mike Vargo, President of AFSCME Local 1565. “This is a crisis waiting to happen,” Vargo said.

Representatives of several unions and union members held a press conference Tuesday to draw attention to the shortages which they say are being exacerbated by COVID-19.

Some state prisons are operating with 80% of staff and that doesn’t take into account the correction officers who are out on workers’ compensation due to work-related injuries, according to a correction officer staffing list supplied by AFSCME Council 4, the umbrella organization for the unions.

The agency began preparing for the anticipated wave of 2022 state employee retirements more than two years ago, said DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros in a statement. 

The commissioner did not address the unions’ complaints regarding repeated 16-hour shifts. 

He said he plans to run “continuous” academy classes for correction officers and the agency is interviewing candidates for classes to start the first week of October. Another class of 100 is slated for December, Quiros said.

There are 90 correction officers who will graduate from the academy on Nov. 4, the commissioner said. The closing of Radgowski Correctional Center in December will allow the reassignment of 110 staff to other facilities, he added.

The number of vacancies is not unusual, Quiros said, taking into consideration that currently there are 217 correction officers who are out on workers’ compensation and military leave. Those positions are not vacant and must be filled with overtime, Quiros said.

“Adding to the complexities, we are operating a first responder agency during a global health crisis,” he said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly 1800 employees have fallen ill from the COVID-19 virus.”

“Maintaining safe staffing levels has always been and will continue to be a priority of this administration,” Quiros said. 

But the reality for employees often involves working 16-hour shifts days in a row which leaves little time for anything else, including sleep, Larson said. “This equates to 48 hours working in a three-day period with sleep deprivation taking its toll,” he said.

At least 20 staff members have left Garner Correctional Institution – where many of the inmates with mental health concerns are housed – since November, said Kenneth Hayward, a correction officer at the facility.

“Garner has 56 vacancies and growing,” Hayward said. “That doesn’t count the dozen or so staff members out due to workplace injuries.”

Working in a prison is a thankless job, Hayward said. “We spend our careers quietly tending to the people society has forgotten,” he said.

But the past 18 months have been particularly hard, he added. “We have worked through a pandemic, risking not only our lives, but the well-being of our families and loved ones as well,” Hayward said. “Every day we showed up. COVID-19 changed what it means to take the job home.”

Without adequate compensation and staffing levels, people will continue to leave, Hayward said. “Some of us have decided the risk is not worth the reward,” he said. “And more are going to follow, whether it’s because of the retirement cliff or burnout or lack of respect for our situation.”

At $91 million, the DOC tops all other state agencies in the amount of overtime paid out in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis. Some correction officers are making two times their $66,700 base pay in overtime, according to the state comptroller’s OpenPayroll website.

The agency’s 2020-2021 overtime is a 16% increase from the prior fiscal year, according to the OFA. The DOC is running at 89% staffing for correction officers overall with Garner and Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center running at 80% and 82% respectively, according to the staffing document supplied by the AFSCME Council 4.

Union officials contend that Gov. Ned Lamont and the agency haven’t been receptive to hiring more people even as the coronavirus pandemic has impacted operations. Prison units have closed during the pandemic, creating tight quarters for inmates.

“Prisons with closed units need to be opened to spread out offenders and create a more sanitary and healthy environment to reduce tension among the inmates,” Larson said. “That’s harder to do without adequate staff.”

There are some days that correction officers are struggling to make sure inmates are showered and have phone and recreation time because there are so few staff on duty, Vargas said. “Staffing gets to a point where it’s unsafe,” Vargo said.

There is also no hazard pay even though the state received federal funds for that purpose, Vargo said.

“It’s not only tragic, it’s insulting,” said Correction Officer Amanda Tower, who works at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. “All we are asking is that we should not have to sacrifice our safety and (the inmates’) for the State of Connecticut’s bottom line.”