Federal prison workers to protest staff shortages, vaccine mandate

"We would like to see the [BOP] act as if the employees are much more than disposable," said union president Michael Meserve

By Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — The union representing federal prison workers will join a nationwide protest Friday to bring attention to staffing shortages, safety concerns and alternatives to the vaccine mandate in Hawaii and at Federal Bureau of Prison facilities around the country.

Workers with the American Federation of Government Employees are planning a staff safety picket at the corner of Nimitz Highway and Elliot Street between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Friday.

Severe staff shortages are forcing nonofficer employees, including cooks, teachers and nurses, to serve as correctional officers under a process called augmentation, according to the AFGE, Local 1218, Council of Prison Locals. Less than 14,000 of the 20,446 correctional officer positions budgeted for 2021 were filled and the conditions are "endangering the lives of employees and makes it harder to safely manage inmates," according to the union.

The union is also advocating for weekly testing options for workers who do not want to accept a COVID-19 vaccine. On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring all federal employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, unless they receive an exception due to a legitimate medical or religious issue.

AFGE would like to negotiate a testing option for employees who do not want the vaccine and do not qualify for a medical or religious exemption.

"AFGE nationally and locally want the BOP to sit down and talk with the Union about the best way to handle procedures and appropriate arrangements for employees who have declined to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In our contract, the Agency recognizes 'that the employees are the most valuable resource of the Agency.' We would like to see the Agency act as if the employees are much more than disposable in relation to this issue," Michael Meserve, president, Local 1218, Council of Prison Locals told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

"Several un-vaccinated staff have approached me with serious concerns about being disciplined and/or removed from service by the Agency. Some of those employees are talking about retiring earlier than planned, or resigning if retirement isn't an option."

The BOP did not reply to Star-Advertiser questions about the protest, whether or not staffing in Hawaii is sufficient, the union's request for an alternative to the COVID-19 mandate or correctional officer recruitment. BOP operates 122 correctional institutions, including the Federal Detention Center Honolulu, located next to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

BOP maintains everyone working in a federal facility is a trained, sworn correctional worker, no matter their position or job title. All employees are told when they are hired that they should expect to perform law enforcement functions, even if they are signing on as counselors or teachers, according to the AP.

AFGE submitted proposals to BOP for staffing and vaccine mandate accommodations, and they have not responded, despite the Biden administration's support for collective bargaining, according to the union.

With the federal vaccine mandate deadline approaching, BOP has not shared information about how exemptions will be reviewed and approved or if there is any flexibility.

"There are potential solutions to this issue. For example, unvaccinated staff could be asked to agree to weekly COVID-19 testing. The fact that the BOP has been unwilling to simply discuss this with the Union has created a manufactured crisis," said Meserve.

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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