In a press conference Wednesday morning, union leaders representing tens of thousands of corrections officers argued that the state and the Department of Corrections have done little to prepare for vaccine distribution, constantly moving the goalposts and delaying a process they say is vital to workplace safety.
“The agency has no plan, nor does it show any true interest in formulating a plan to get our members the vaccine they so desperately want,” said Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387, representing the Cheshire Correctional Complex.
Corrections officers are part of Phase 1b, which includes staff in congregate settings and individuals 75 and older. That phase began to roll out last week.
“We were told that we were going to be second in line for vaccinations,” said Virginia Ligi, a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution. “We were told that the roll out date was early January, and it is now almost February and there is no plan. The surrounding states have made sure that the vaccine was available for their correctional staff, yet we are still waiting. There is no set plan in place, even how to sign up for a vaccine.”
Correctional facilities staff in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York have already begun receiving vaccinations, but officers in Connecticut said they have yet to even hear from the department about when vaccinations might begin.
While the union leaders do not hold the Department of Corrections responsible for challenges with vaccine supply, they said the lack of preparedness for when the vaccine does arrive is frustrating.
“The Department of Corrections has to be prepared to administer the vaccine when it comes, but no plan in place right now for what the rollout to staff or inmates will look like,” said Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391.
The unions have begun asking their members if they are interested in the vaccine, in an effort to formulate a headcount, work they expected to have come from the department.
“The department has not asked the corrections officers how many of us are willing to take it,” said Mike Vargo, President of AFSCME Local 1565. “The agency has had ample opportunity to find out who of their 6,000 staff members would be willing to take the vaccination and could have had that list ready to go.”
Howard also shared his experience battling COVID-19, which he said led to a permanent heart condition with scarring and damage to his heart lining.
“It’s been a rough journey, and I don’t want to see anyone else go through what I’ve gone through,” Howard said. “I’m on seven medications. Just getting up and down sometimes is hard, because I get shortness of breath real quick. Even now, playing with my son is difficult because I get tired very easily.”
Ligi also contracted COVID-19, and said her experience battling the virus and returning to work made her wary of the department’s ability to protect its employees.
“I was bed ridden for three weeks, only to come back to a job that was understaffed and not properly directed,” Ligi said. “Going back to work, I saw my fellow coworkers dropping like flies. Some of them ended up in the ICU. Being so short staffed due to so many of my coworkers out, we were constantly mandated to work additional shifts. The lack of sleep and long hours are probably a huge factor as to why so many of us ever fully recovered.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Corrections shared a statement saying that they are working on a vaccination plan in accordance with the governor’s designation of corrections facility staff as part of Phase 1b.
“Since that announcement, DOC’s focus has been to develop an educational and operational plan – in collaboration with the Comptroller’s Office and the Department of Public Health – in order to efficiently vaccinate as many staff members and inmates as quickly as possible,” the statement reads.