Joseph Russo Rikers

UNITED IN OPPOSITION: Correction-union leaders, pictured above during an August rally, are united in their opposition to the city’s vaccine mandate, which goes into effect Dec. 1 for Department of Correction employees. Joseph Russo, the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Dep­uty Wardens Association, holding the microphone, Benny Boscio Jr., the head of Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, in the blue shirt, and Patrick Ferraiuolo, the head of the Captains’ Association, at right, have said its provisions amount to coercion. Under 60 percent of officers have received a jab to date. 

With under two weeks left before the city’s vaccine mandate goes into effect at the Department of Correction, less than 60 percent of uniformed staff have received an initial jab, the lowest rate among city agencies. 

While correction-union officials suggested that imposition of the mandate's provisions could exacerbate staffing shortfalls inside city jails, Mayor de Blasio said he expected a significant number of officers would get vaccinated as the Dec. 1 deadline drew near. 

Jail Staffing Issues Cited

Although 92 percent of the DOC’s non-uniformed workers are vaccinated—20 percent more than on Oct. 20, when the mandate was announced, the Mayor said—just 57 percent of uniformed staff have been inoculated.

While workers at all other city departments were required to comply with the mandate’s directives by Oct. 29, DOC staff were given several more weeks due to acute staff shortages—particularly among officers—that department officials, the Mayor and a Federal monitor have cited as the primary reason for the exceedingly poor state of city jails, particularly those on Rikers Island.

The head of the Correction Captains’ Association, Patrick Ferraiuolo, citing staff shortages, said he would request an extension of the mandate for DOC employees when he met with city officials next week. Mr. de Blasio, though, said he was confident that correction officers would increasingly be lining up to get a first jab as the deadline approached. 

“I think we have such a body of evidence right now that when a mandate goes into effect, overwhelmingly members of the workforce honor it. Overwhelmingly,” the Mayor said during his Nov. 16 press briefing. 

While officers stand to earn a $500 bonus when they get vaccinated, Mr. de Blasio said a consistent salary would be the greater incentive. “There's going to be a group of folks who stand apart in the beginning, but then when there's not a paycheck, [they] decide they need that paycheck, come back," he said. 

CCA: Mandate for Inmates

Aside from the staffing issues, Mr. Ferraiuolo reiterated his belief that inoculation was a personal matter and noted what he said were inconsistencies in how city mandates were being prescribed. 

“I’m not anti-vax but it’s still their choice,” he said of officers. “I have a big problem that it’s mandatory for staff but it’s not mandatory for visitors to Rikers Island” or for new inmates. If it’s mandated for DOC staff, “it should be mandated for everyone” entering jail compounds, he said.

Captain Ferraiuolo said city officials would be wise to once again delay the mandate for correction officers, something he planned to suggest when he and his correction-union colleagues met with Office of Labor Relations officials next week. “We’re in a very different position than any other institution,” he said. “They need to push it back.”

But the union leader said the CCA would not be party, as are several municipal unions, to an agreement establishing exemption and leave policies that would, among other things, allow Captains to remain on the city payroll for a brief period while their applications for religious or medical exemptions were being reviewed. In exchange, unions agreed to not seek legal redress, among other stipulations. 

“I have no interest in signing the deal,” which he said would leave his members vulnerable to termination.

Lack of Faith, Trust

Joseph Russo, the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Dep­uty Wardens Association, said he could only speculate about the reasons for the low vax rate among officers, but thought it likely was attributable to a lack of confidence in the vaccines’ safety. 

“I don’t think they have faith and trust in this vaccine specifically,” he said. “They don’t trust it and they’re leery of long-term effects.”

Like Mr. Ferraiuolo and many other municipal-union heads, Mr. Russo—who noted that 75 percent of his members had received a jab—reiterated that getting vaccinated was a personal matter and that the city’s mandate and its punishment provisions amounted to coercion. 

“Everyone should have a choice,” he said. “I’m against this forcing, having a mandate, forcing people...or putting them in a position to put them on leave without pay. I think that’s very unfair."

The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Benny Boscio Jr., also was skeptical that the vaccine deadline would make a significant difference in the number of officers who finally get the jab. “People are afraid, people have reservations," he said of his members.

He said a city-affiliated doctor was on hand to answer questions about the vaccine during a COBA meeting Nov. 17. “We want to educate people as best as we can,” Mr. Boscio said. But he did not think that the COBA membership would be significantly swayed to avert a worsening of the staffing crisis. 

“It’s going to decimate us,” should even a significant portion of the vaccine holdouts be put on leave, he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster...You’re at risk of increased inmate deaths and suicides.”

He said he would support Mr. Ferraiuolo’s request for another extension to the mandate’s approaching target date. “We were mandated without bargaining,” he said.

2,000-Plus Had Virus

Since the start of the pandemic, 2,417 DOC staff, including 2,156 in the rank of Correction Officer, have contracted the virus, a number that, as with detainees, has steadily increased since March 2020, although much more slowly than during those early weeks. 

Of the 5,475 people in custody as of Nov. 8, 65 had tested positive and were showing signs of infection, according to Board of Correction statistics. Another 186 had “likely” been exposed but were asymptomatic. All were separated from the general population. Both categories had decreased notably in the last few weeks.

Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said DOC officials had pushed the vaccination message through town halls, robocalls, video reminders and posters. 

“We set up a vaccination site on Rikers Island with a shuttle bus running from every jail to that vaccination site,” he said during the Mayor’s Nov. 15 briefing, adding that the department had held “family days” on Rikers to enable officers’ families to get inoculated. 

Approaching Normalcy

Mr. Schiraldi said number triple shifts by officers have gone down, as have violent incidents, including officers’ uses of force, in recent weeks. He also said two recruit classes were poised to graduate in the next two months, and that another would start training in December. 

“At the end of the day, we have a duty to each other and to those in our care. It's an obligation I know so many correction officers consider their core mission,” he said in continuing to encourage vaccine holdouts to get the jab by Dec. 1. 

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