As 378 of 400 Test Positive For COVID-19, Workplace Safety Fails Corrections Workers Across Connecticut

Each week Corrections Officer Brian Withington at York Correctional Institution is given one surgical mask. He is expected to wear the disposal mask through back-to-back 16-hour shifts in a facility with hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases.

“We are expected to wear a surgical mask for 80 hours a week and they’re not even effective at protecting us,” Withington said. “Out of all the state agencies, the Department of Corrections is the one that has the most issues, the most cases, and yet we don’t have enough PPE.”

As of May 26, 792 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 across the state, according to department data. As testing has expanded, positive cases have too, including an additional 152 of the 962 offenders at Corrigan Correctional Center in Uncasville on Wednesday, according to Mike Tuthill, the president of AFSCME Local 1565.

Despite a shipment of 6 million surgical masks to the state on May 12, and corrections having the largest number of impacted staff, the three unions representing corrections workers pulled together to purchase 10,000 masks for $40,000 last week in order to provide their members with proper protection against COVID-19, Tuthill said.  

According to the department, however, all facilities have a supply of N95, KN95, surgical and cloth masks. The N95 masks are prioritized for those working in direct contact with COVID-19 cases or in facilities with the highest number of cases.

“Despite the national shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE), it has been my priority to have the proper tools to fight this unforgiving virus,” said Commissioner Rollin Cook.  “I will continue to work to procure more PPEs for our unsung heroes of the pandemic.  The frontline healthcare and correctional employees cannot be thanked enough for their dedication and valiant efforts to keep the offenders and the citizens of Connecticut safe.”

On Wednesday morning, however, Tuthill was told that the purchase of masks for corrections workers has been delayed while the department routes the request through unified command, which aggregates requests across state agencies to afford the state maximum purchasing power with vendors.

Employee concern continues to grow

This week, mass testing continued for inmates and for the first time was offered onsite to staff at all correctional facilities. As of Tuesday, 1,600 tests were administered to inmates across the state and 400 to staff, with 378 staff members testing positive, according to the department’s data.

“Once the testing makes it to all facilities we are going to find a lot of asymptomatic people who test positive,” Tuthill said.

Testing is not mandated for staff, but Tuthill and Withington said that most members want to be tested. Hartford Healthcare is asking that all employees who want to be tested pre-register.

“They don’t want to come down here if it isn’t enough people for them to make a profit,” Tuthill said. Hartford Healthcare, which has a contract with the state to administer tests to staff is paid per test given. “I don’t want to blame them, but it’s not good. I have members that are working 16 hours a day and don’t have time to sit down and pre-register and don’t know what their work schedule is going to be a week ahead of time.”

If an employee does test positive, they have the option to take a 14-day paid leave authorized by Governor Ned Lamont, said Andrius Banevicius, a public information officer for the department.

“A lot of people utilized the leave for child care and now they get sick and they are told good luck, they have to use their own time,” Withington said.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act expanded family medical leave for an additional 10 weeks with reduced pay for employees authorized by the governor. According to Tuthill, this benefit is not available to corrections employees.

“They chose not to include corrections officers or corrections medical workers,” Tuthill said. “Some of our members took 14 days because they were positive and are not allowed back because they are still positive, but they can’t get paid. Across the board it’s a problem.”

Opening up

Even as the restrictions begin to loosen across the state and businesses reopen, the department is not yet planning to make the same types of changes within its facilities.

The suspension of social visits, volunteers and vendors which has been in place since March will continue, Banevicius said. In addition, positive COVID-19 inmates will continue to be transferred to the medical isolation unit within the Northern Correctional Institute, while all other transfers and intakes are limited.

“As one of the department’s initial efforts to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus all visits were suspended back on March 13, 2020,” Banevicius said.  “Although the visiting policy is frequently being reassessed with an eye towards health and safety, at this time there is no definite timetable for the resumption of visits.”

In addition, social distancing measures and mask wearing for all staff and employees will continue. Some employees report, however, that these guidelines are not currently being enforced within the facilities. 

“Some people wear the masks and some choose not to. It’s really not being enforced,” said Mary Haeseler, an ID Records Specialist at Corrigan Correctional Center. “The stress of trying to keep yourself protected and your family protected is overwhelming.”

Haeseler, who has worked at Corrigan for 32 years, and her husband have underlying health conditions that put them more at risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. She is able to work at home two days per week, but three days she is required to come to the office.

“Somebody has to be in the office every day, and some days it’s me,” Haeseler said. However, some of her coworkers at other facilities are not being allowed to work from home at all, according to Haeseler, even if they are at risk. “I have coworkers in other facilities where they are working 40 hours a week in the office, not all clerical are being treated the same.”

Haeseler said she had hoped the department would have developed alternate shift schedules to reduce the number of interactions staff have to have just as the Governor is encouraging all private businesses to do.

“We have found that the agency hasn’t fully listened to us and responded to us about our concerns to create work schedules to minimize staff risk,” said Larry Dorman, the public affairs coordinator at Council 4 AFSCME. “We are pushing the agency to create alternative schedules and minimize the exposure that employees will have in the prison environment.”