Hundreds of NYC Jailers Face Suspension Over Vaccine Mandate

NEW YORK (AP/Hamodia) —
A barbed wire fence outside inmate housing on New York’s Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

New York City’s troubled jail system is facing more turmoil: the suspension of potentially hundreds of corrections officers for failing to meet a Tuesday night deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The city’s Department of Correction reported 77% of its uniformed staff had gotten at least one vaccine dose. The DOC mandate was delayed a month for jail workers because of existing staffing shortages.

More than 30% of uniformed staff received a vaccine since October 19, the day before the mandate was announced.

Jail workers who’ve applied for religious or medical exemptions can continue to work while their cases are reviewed, but have to take a weekly COVID test.

City Hall said Wednesday that 708 uniformed staff, or 9% of the workforce, have applied for these exemptions. Another 570 have not, and are at least of being put on unpaid leave when they show up for their next shift without either a vaccine card or an application for an exemption.

Ninety-three percent of DOC’s non-uniformed staff is vaccinated.

“We’re grateful for every officer who has stepped up for the community and gotten the shot,” said DOC spokesperson Patrick Gallahue. “Vaccination rates will continue to rise, as they have with every agency in the city, and we remain confident that our staffing plan will keep our jails safe while they do.”

In anticipation of the looming mandate, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday issued an emergency executive order designed to beef up jail staffing by authorizing a switch to 12-hour shifts from the normal eight-hour tours.

The president of the union for jail guards balked at that move, saying it was “reckless and misguided.” The union said it would sue to block the mandate — the same tactic a police union tried in late October as the vaccine requirement for officers neared. The police union lost and the mandate went into effect as scheduled.

Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said staffing in the city’s jails is as bad or worse than it was in October, when de Blasio announced jail workers would have extra time to meet the vaccine mandate.

Fewer than 100 of a promised 600 guards have been hired, Boscio said, and none of them have started working in the jails. Resignations and retirements have piled up, and guards are continuing to work round-the-clock shifts, with no time for meals or rest, Boscio said.

Suspending jail workers over the vaccine mandate could be deadly, the union chief warned.

“To move forward with placing what little staff we do have on leave tomorrow would be like pouring gasoline on a fire, which will have a catastrophic impact on the safety of our officers and the thousands of inmates in our custody,” Boscio said Tuesday.

The looming suspensions threaten to add to the problems at the city’s jails, which includes the notorious Rikers Island complex. The jails, rotted by years of neglect, have spiraled out of control during the pandemic with staggering violence, self-harm and the deaths this year of at least 14 inmates — the most since 2013.

The troubles have led to growing calls to overhaul or immediately close Rikers Island, which the city has said will be shuttered by 2027. The city on Tuesday announced it had awarded contracts for work on new jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Last week, members of the House Oversight Committee, including New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent letters to New York City district attorneys expressing “grave concerns” that excessive bail amounts were putting too many people in jail.

At the same time, the city has struggled to keep its jails adequately staffed, with staffing levels dropping sharply during the pandemic. Uniformed personnel fell from a staff of 10,862 in 2017 to 8,388 in 2021. At one point in the summer, one-third of guards were out sick or medically unfit to work with inmates and an untold number of guards went AWOL, the city said.

The vaccine mandate for jail workers is taking effect as scientists are racing to learn more about the Omicron variant, which was identified last week by researchers in South Africa.

De Blasio announced an additional vaccine mandate Monday for childcare workers, reiterating his commitment to mandates he’s unveiled in recent months.

New York City required almost its entire municipal workforce, including teachers, police officers, firefighters and trash collectors, to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by November, but gave jail workers an extra month because of staffing worries.

The Department of Correction said it held town halls, called employees and gave them literature to encourage them to get vaccinated. It also offered a $500 bonus, parked a truck displaying a pro-vaccine message on a digital billboard at Rikers Island and recruited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, author Piper Kerman and a sports celebrity to tape messages for the department encouraging workers to get the shot.


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