NEW YORK — New York City’s troubled jail system is facing more turmoil: the suspension of potentially hundreds of corrections officers for failing to meet a Tuesday night deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The city’s Department of Correction reported 77% of its staff had gotten at least one vaccine dose as of 5 p.m. Monday, the lowest of any city agency, meaning about 1,900 employees had yet to comply with the mandate. It was delayed a month for jail workers because of existing staffing shortages.
Jail workers who’ve applied for religious or medical exemptions can continue to work while their cases are reviewed, officials said. Jail officials said they would release data Wednesday detailing how many workers sought for an exemption.
Workers who haven’t applied for an exemption and who failed to show proof of vaccination by 5 p.m. Tuesday were to be placed on unpaid leave and surrender any city-issued firearms and protective gear, officials said.
In anticipation of the looming mandate, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday issued an emergency executive order designed to beef up jail staffing by authorizing a switch to 12-hour shifts from the normal 8-hour tours.
The president of the union for jail guards balked at that move saying it was “reckless and misguided.” The union said it would sue to block the mandate — the same tactic a police union tried in late October as the vaccine requirement for officers neared. The police union lost and the mandate went into effect as scheduled.
Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said staffing in the city’s jails is as bad or worse than it was in October, when de Blasio announced jail workers would have extra time to meet the vaccine mandate.
Fewer than 100 of a promised 600 guards have been hired, Boscio said, and none of them have started working in the jails. Resignations and retirements have piled up, and guards are continuing to work round-the-clock shifts, with no time for meals or rest, Boscio said.
Suspending jail workers over the vaccine mandate could be deadly, the union chief warned.
“To move forward with placing what little staff we do have on leave tomorrow would be like pouring gasoline on a fire, which will have a catastrophic impact on the safety of our officers and the thousands of inmates in our custody,” Boscio said Tuesday.
The looming suspensions threaten to add to the problems at the city’s jails, which includes the notorious Rikers Island complex. The jails, rotted by years of neglect, have spiraled out of control during the pandemic with staggering violence, self-harm and the deaths this year of at least 14 inmates — the most since 2013.
The troubles have led to growing calls to overhaul or immediately close Rikers Island, which the city has said will be shuttered by 2027. The city on Tuesday announced it had awarded contracts for work on new jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Last week, members of the House Oversight Committee, including New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent letters to New York City district attorneys expressing “grave concerns” that excessive bail amounts were putting too many people in jail.
At the same time, the city has struggled to keep its jails adequately staffed, with staffing levels dropping sharply during the pandemic. Uniformed personnel fell from a staff of 10,862 in 2017 to 8,388 in 2021. At one point in the summer, one-third of guards were out sick or medically unfit to work with inmates and an untold number of guards went AWOL, the city said.
The vaccine mandate for jail workers is taking effect as scientists are racing to learn more about the omicron variant, which was identified last week by researchers in South Africa. No cases have been detected in the United States, though de Blasio said he believes it’s “very likely” there will eventually be cases reported in New York City.
De Blasio announced an additional vaccine mandate Monday for child care workers, reiterating his commitment to mandates he’s unveiled in recent months.
New York City required almost its entire municipal workforce, including teachers, police officers, firefighters and trash collectors, to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by November, but gave jail workers an extra month because of staffing worries.
The Department of Correction said it held town halls, called employees and gave them literature to encourage them to get vaccinated. It also offered a $500 bonus, parked a truck displaying a pro-vaccine message on a digital billboard at Rikers Island and recruited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, author Piper Kerman and former New York Mets player Mookie Wilson to tape messages for the department encouraging workers to get the shot.
The campaign has moved the needle, with Monday’s 77% vaccination total among jail workers up from 72% a week earlier and 46% in late October when the mandate was announced. Still, at all other city agencies, at least at least 86% of workers have received at least one vaccine dose — and most agencies were reporting vaccination rates above 90% as of Monday.