CO union calls for immediate inspection of NJ county jail

The union filed complaints after COs were required to wear masks for two, 12-hour shifts in a row despite "an ample supply of surgical masks in the county's stockpile"


By George Woolston
Burlington County Times

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. — The Burlington County Corrections Officers union is asking the state to come and inspect the county jail immediately over concerns that policies put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic do more harm than good.

The union, Policemen's Benevolent Association #249, filed complaints with three separate state agencies Tuesday after officers were required on Monday to wear surgical masks for two, 12-hour shifts in a row despite "an ample supply of surgical masks in the county's stockpile," according to documents.

The union filed an unfair practice charge over the new policy with the Public Employment Relations Commission; a public employees occupational safety and health complaint with the New Jersey Department of Health; as well as a letter sent to New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks requesting an immediate inspection of the jail and its policies.

According to CDC guidelines, surgical masks should be discarded immediately after use. The complaint also cites a recent study that claims the virus can live and thrive on a surgical mask for up to seven days.

"Therefore, if Correctional Police Officers are required to wear a surgical mask for more than a single shift, the realistic possibility exists that they will be donning a COVID-19 contaminated mask, thereby creating an even greater risk of infection," union attorney Frank Crivelli wrote in a letter to the state department of corrections commissioner.

Nine county correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, and more are awaiting test results, Crivelli said.

County officials could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

It is not known if any inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

In March, in a move to prevent an outbreak in county jails across New Jersey, the state Supreme Court found 59 inmates at the Burlington County Jail were eligible to released early. After objections from the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office based upon the condition that the inmate receive drug treatment when released, a total of 36 men were ultimately released, according to the prosecutor's office.

According to documents sent to the Burlington County Times, a new policy was put in place at the jail Monday requiring corrections officers to wear a mask at all times when inside of the facility, including when entering and exiting.

The policy states new masks would be issued to officers on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and if an officer reports to work on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday without a mask, they would be sent home to retrieve their mask without pay. If an officer reports for work without a mask on more than one occasion, they will be subject to disciplinary action, the policy states.

Under the policy, officers are advised to store the mask and take it home until their next shift.

"Requiring these officers to transport potentially contaminated surgical masks could lead to further contamination, not just of the officers' homes but of their vehicles along with other essential establishments the officer might frequent while off-duty," the unfair practice charge states. The charge calls the policy that officers be subject to discipline "unconscionable" and "illegal," as well as a violation of the union's negotiated contract with the county.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections issued a mandate on April 4 requiring all correctional officers in state prisons to wear surgical or protective masks at all times during their shifts as well. State correctional officers are provided with surgical masks at the start of their shifts, and the masks are then discarded at the end of each shift.

For officers who are required to work multiple shifts, a new mask is made available to them for any time worked past eight hours.

Crivelli, of Crivelli & Barbati, L.L.C. out of Hamilton, represents a number of corrections officer unions in New Jersey. On Tuesday, he called the policy at the Burlington County Jail "by far the most outlandish."

"It's very, very draconian," Crivelli said.

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©2020 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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