Unions Warn of Negligence Over Judicial Working Conditions
Written by Lisa Backus
March 30, 2020
Published on ctnewsjunkie.com
Union officials are calling on the state Judicial Branch to immediately clean courthouses, provide protective gear for marshals and other employees working with the public and be more transparent in reporting positive COVID-19 tests of agency employees among a list of concerns they want the agency to address.
In the past two weeks five employees and a juvenile held at the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, called COVID-19, prompting office quarantines and the closure of courthouses.
But three union officials who represent more than 3,000 Judicial Branch employees including those who work with the public and offenders such as marshals, probation officers and juvenile detention officers think more should be done.
“It’s been more reactionary rather than pro-active,” said Ron Nelson, President of AFSCME Local 749 which represents bail commissioners, court clerks and administrative staff, court monitors and juvenile detention officers. “I understand that this is a pandemic but there are ways to work together.”
The cleaning of judicial transport vehicles started Friday and continued Monday and restraints were cleaned as well, said Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll who contended that he was “troubled and disappointed” by the union allegations.
Courthouses are being continually cleaned and disinfected nightly, Carroll said. In cases where there has been a known or suspected COVID-19 exposure, the areas where the person could have traveled in a court facility are also being cleaned, said Carroll who pointed out that the Branch has limited public access by closing courthouses.
“We have further entered into an agreement with the Department of Correction to limit the number of incarcerated individuals to be transported by our judicial marshals to DOC facilities,” Carroll said
Gov. Ned Lamont has instituted increasingly strict measures including banning gatherings of more than five people and closing non-essential businesses in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus which has killed 34 in Connecticut and thousands more worldwide.
There has been little coordinated communication to provide union officials with information on the number of judicial employees who have tested positive, said Nelson, who wasn’t told that a Danbury court clerk has tested positive until 24 hours after hearing about it from people working “in the field.”
“I called the contact person asking about it and was notified the next day,” Nelson said. “They did send a couple of clerks home that day, but one stayed in that office until the end of the day. The staff wanted to know what to do if they were exposed.”
Branch officials supplied an email that went to judges and employees Sunday instructing people not to come to work if they feel sick or have been exposed to the virus. The email tells employees to limit their interaction with co-workers and if possible, send documents by email.
Judicial Branch employees were also instructed in the email to keep a meticulous daily log “to identify every single individual with whom you have had contact for a period of greater than 15 minutes and at a distance of less than six feet.”
The fact that the branch isn’t releasing information on employees who test positive is an issue, said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who is the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “This information needs to be public, the public needs to know. I don’t think people should need to ask for that.”
Winfield is also trying to get answers to a number of other issues including what is happening at the juvenile detention centers now that an employee and a juvenile have tested positive.
“I’m trying to find out what the concerns are,” Winfield said.
Judicial marshals are working without protective gear at the entrances to the nine courthouses that remain open and in lockups with offenders held for arraignments, according to Joe Gaetano, president of IBPO Local 731, which represents about 680 judicial marshals.
“The branch operates a transportation system, lockup facilities, and security check points that require large numbers of individuals to be in close proximity in relatively closed environments,” Gaetano said. “The health and safety of frontline security staff is at stake. The Judicial Branch must immediately and regularly clean surfaces and provide staff with personal protective equipment to prevent infection of staff and the general public.”
Branch officials contend that they have instituted an “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocol” and that protective gear has been ordered. “We are mindful, and supportive” that healthcare providers are the priority in receiving protective gear, but “we will continue our efforts to secure the equipment we need to augment our current supply,” Carroll said.
Mike Barry, a juvenile probation officer and President of the Judicial Professional Employees including probation officers, court clerks and victim advocates, echoed many of the concerns including that the Branch should consider closing the two juvenile detention centers in Hartford and Bridgeport since it’s nearly impossible for people to maintain social distancing there.
A classification and programming employee at the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but the number of staff members in the building was not reduced, he said.
“I would ask the Judicial Branch to look closely at the juvenile detention centers,” Barry said. “I know how difficult these decisions are to make. They should consider closing them or at least keep looking at it.”
Although the union is grateful that several courthouses have been closed and hours have been reduced at the courts that are open, employees with access to computers and phones who have requested to work from home have been routinely denied, Barry said.
There is also confusion about which employees and which job classifications will be mandated to work if there aren’t enough volunteers to go the courthouses, Barry said. “We are asking for a list of mandated employees including the individuals’ names,” he said.
Nelson has bail commissioners and other staff without personal protective equipment going to police departments to interview those who have been arrested and held. He wants better communication and direction and alerts for employees who may have been exposed.
“The health and safety of our members is paramount,” Nelson said. “We want to limit all of our members’ potential exposure. They have closed courthouses and reduced hours and limited access to the public and we are asking for additional cleanings that don’t appear to be taking place.”
The union has made repeated requests to O’Donovan Murphy, the director of marshal services. Judicial marshals in the field are saying that they aren’t seeing appropriate cleaning of buildings, transport vehicles and restraint equipment, Gaetano said.
Due to the nature of their jobs, marshals aren’t able to stand six feet away from the public and offenders, and they have not been given personal protective equipment such as respirator masks, eye protection and gloves, he said.
At a minimum Gaetano wants transport trucks and restraints cleaned and sanitized after every use and masks and protective equipment provided to marshals who are assigned to entry points including metal detectors which also should be cleaned.
“One marshal has already tested positive for COVID-19,” Gaetano said. “This isn’t hypothetical, and continued delays in taking action is willful negligence.”