Bearded workers at Calif. prisons fight orders to shave for N95 fittings
The department sent out a memo announcing more employees would have to get fit-tested as part of the prisons' COVID-19 protocols
By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California state worker union is fighting for groundskeepers and maintenance men who want to keep their facial hair and also be protected from the coronavirus at their prison jobs.
State prison officials have been telling workers they have to shave for N95 mask fittings to comply with safety regulations, according to memos and interviews. The masks, which provide better protection than cloth, work best when they closely fit workers' skin, according to state and federal regulators.
After an order came down to prepare for fittings last Monday at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, the International Union of Operating Engineers intervened, pausing some of the fittings over concerns about facial hair, union representatives said.
"I told them, don't shave it off yet, let's figure this out," said Steve Crouch, the union's director of public employees.
The union is monitoring the situation at Folsom State Prison, where somewhere around three dozen maintenance men with facial hair have been told they might have to shave for the tests, said Roger Jacobs, a union steward who represents workers there.
"I don't know what's going on beneath their beards, if they have scars or if it's self-identity, but a lot of guys are upset," Jacobs said. "They don't want to shave their beards. They say 'just buy us the proper personal protective equipment that lets us keep our beards and be safe.'"
The workers want the prison to provide respirators that enclose workers' heads and filter air using units on their hips, he said. The units, sometimes called PAPRs, cost about $1,000 each, according to state procurement records.
N95 masks range in price but the state has bought many for less than $2 each.
The records show the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has bought at least a couple dozen of the units, but the records don't say which prisons they went to or what the corrections department uses them for.
The department has required some employees for years to get fitted for masks to protect them from hazardous airborne particles.
The department sent out a memo Aug. 31 announcing more employees would have to get fit-tested as part of the prisons' COVID-19 protocols. A Q&A provided by the department includes a link to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend shaving facial hair, with the exception of some mustaches.
The coronavirus has spread through California state prisons, infecting 15,620 inmates and 4,317 workers, according to corrections department figures. The virus has killed 10 workers and 76 inmates, according to the figures.
"Some staff may be required to wear N95s due to COVID-19, like for instance those attending to COVID-19 patients or entering quarantined areas," corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an emailed statement. "Anyone whose job duties require them to wear an N95 will be fit tested for the safety of everyone who lives and works in an institution."
Union representative Brandy Johnson said the requirement is about more than facial hair. Johnson said the department has been ordering the fit tests even for people who don't attend to COVID-19 patients or go into quarantined areas.
She said workers are concerned that the fit tests could mean they'll be expected to enter more hazardous areas.
Many of the union's represented workers — particularly groundskeepers — don't come into close contact with inmates or other employees, she said.
"How does this reduce your unnecessary exposure when you shouldn't even be required in those areas in the first place," she said.
Johnson said the union has requested meetings to discuss the changes.
The corrections department's general mask rules say workers must wear cloth masks when they are indoors. When they're outdoors and at a distance from other people, they may take them off, according to an Office of the Inspector General report published Monday.
Those rules have been loosely followed and enforced at the prisons, the report said.
(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)