'I feel betrayed': NYC COs who had COVID-19 punished for chronic absences
"I feel like they don't look at us as humans. We're just a badge number, a shield number. We're disposable. There's no empathy at all," one CO said
By Chelsia Rose Marcius
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Hundreds of correction officers who worked in the jails during the pandemic and missed work after contracting coronavirus are now considered chronically absent by the city’s Correction Department — a stain on their personnel records that can prevent them from rising up the ranks and could even jeopardize their jobs, the Daily News has learned.
The agency received 893 appeals from officers who tested positive for COVID-19 and were considered excessively absent from work, officials said. Of those, 546 applications were approved, and 327 were denied. Twenty are still pending.
Yet the numbers of denied appeals appears to be as high as 400, according to sources who reviewed an internal report about chronic absences.
Seventy-six officers who were denied are also part of a class action grievance filed by their union demanding the agency remove this designation — an insult, they say, to those frontline workers who got sick while serving the city.
One of them is Correction Officer Antonio Saltalamacchia, who missed 98 days of work after testing positive three times between March and June, medical records show. His three-month battle with COVID-19 also led to a slew of other severe health issues — including a dangerous bout of pneumonia, the onset of debilitating asthma and a lack a smell he still can’t quite explain.
For 34-year-old Saltalamacchia, who has been on the job for nine years, being labeled chronically absent by the agency is a slap in the face.
“I feel betrayed,” Saltalamacchia told The News outside his Astoria, Queens, home. “They want us to be essential workers, go there every day, do what we got to do every day, no matter what.”
“Now we’re [facing] consequences for getting sick, from something that we can’t even prevent,” he said. “I feel like they don’t look at us as humans. We’re just a badge number, a shield number. We’re disposable. There’s no empathy at all.”
Over 1,440 Correction staffers — including officers — have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 16 when the virus first swept through the jails, according to the most recent data published by the Board of Correction. Several officers have succumbed to the disease. Union officials said in September eight officers died from coronavirus, the DOC maintains five casualties.
The agency came under fire in early April after 10 officers refused to return to their posts for what would’ve been a 24-hour shift, a decision Mayor de Blasio called “a dumb managerial mistake.” That same week, officers with coronavirus at Rikers’ North Infirmary Command were ordered to return work by the agency’s Health Management Division against the advice of their doctors — even though jail brass told staffers experiencing flu-like symptoms to stay home, internal memos show.
Fast forward to the summer when Saltalamacchia, who also works at North Infirmary Command, applied to dispute his chronic absent status — a designation that goes into effect after an officer has missed 11 days of work, and can impact pay, promotions, hours, and make some more vulnerable in the event of layoffs, union officials said.
Saltalamacchia’s 20-page appeal, which was reviewed by The News, included official medical records indicating positive COVID-19 test results on March 29, April 12 and June 4, a radiology report from June 4 detailing his pneumonia diagnosis, as well as doctors' notes stating he should not return to work.
His appeal was approved by a supervisor, a deputy warden, an acting warden and a commanding officer from the Health Management Division before it was ultimately denied Oct. 1 by Acting Chief of Administration Sherrie Rembert, according to a single-page document sent to Saltalamacchia. He he was not told why his appeal was denied, nor was he given a chance to provide any additional information that might’ve changed the outcome.
About 100 were approved by the division, but denied by Rembert, according to an internal report — which, sources say, calls into question her role in the department.
“It’s outrageous to deny Officer Saltalamacchia and many others like him,” Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr. told The News. “To deal with what he had to deal with, and to now have a blemish on [his] record… it adds insult to injury.”
“DOC failed our officers during COVID, and now they’re failing them again by tarnishing their records,” he added. “We’re considered first responders… and this is how the department is going to treat us?”
Correction Deputy Commissioner Peter Thorne said the department will review "these absences on a case by case basis and will make determinations in accordance with the department’s absence control policy.”
For Saltalamacchia, correction officers who contracted coronavirus should be recognized for their work — not punished.
“If you had it, you should be left alone," he said. “This stays on your record forever. It’s just not fair... And if there’s a second wave, people are going to get it [in the jails] again... How is the department going to [handle it] then?"
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