NJ COs want hazard pay, testing center as COVID-19 cases rise

Union officials want a pay increase for COs as they face the rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the state's prisons


By S.P. Sullivan
NJ Advance Media Group

EDISON, N.J. — New Jersey’s major corrections officers unions are asking the state to boost pay for officers sealed inside the state’s dozen prisons as they face the uncertain and rapid spread of novel coronavirus.

They also want New Jersey to ramp up the testing of employees working behind bars.

“As the days pass, we’re getting more and more officers that are testing positive,” said William Sullivan, the president of NJ PBA Local 105, which represents rank-and-file state corrections and parole officers. “We’re just worried about staffing levels.”

Sullivan said that due of strict quarantine practices, a single sick officer can sideline dozens of his or her colleagues, since anyone who had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 is also asked to quarantine for 14 days.

For the Department of Corrections — state government’s second-largest employer — just a few sick workers could have a ripple effect.

The state has not tested any of its corrections workers. A spokeswoman said they are “tested by their respective health providers.”

The department did not respond to questions about whether it would provide hazard pay or set up a testing site specifically for corrections staff. Union officials said they were not aware of a previous time when the department had provided hazard pay.

So far, at least four employees have contracted the virus, including one at Northern State Prison, one at the Central Reception assignment facility and two at the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center, according to state officials.

On Monday, an attorney for the union sent letters to the state Department of Corrections and Juvenile Justice Commission seeking “'hazardous duty compensation’ in light of the circumstances faced by its members currently working at the various correctional facilities and institutions" around the state.

By Thursday, the PBA and several other corrections unions followed up seeking an on-site testing facility for state corrections officers.

“A single positive test result, depending on the particular circumstances, may require not only the positive officer to absent themselves from work for an extended period of time, but also mandate that many more officers that had direct contact and/or exposure with the officer to also be absent from work for a minimum period (of two weeks) while they self-quarantine,” the letter said.

The unions’ attorney, Frank Crivelli, wrote on Monday that union members were owed hazard pay because each member "now reports to work without (personal protective equipment) with the realistic possibility of being exposed to this deadly virus.

“However, what makes matters worse is that immediately after an officer’s shift ends, he or she runs the horrifying risk of carrying the virus home from the jail and exposing and contaminating their family.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, Liz Velez, said Friday that “employees will have access to surgical masks at the entry point of each facility.” Sullivan said officers have access to gloves.

Velez said that the highly sought-after N95 masks “are being distributed to employees managing sick individuals with symptoms of the illness, as medically prescribed.”

The starting salary for a state corrections officer is $44,000 and while they can make as much as $85,000, the majority of current sworn officers make less than $50,000, according to union officials.

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©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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