By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allegheny County Jail administration posted a large sign over the front entrance to the building.
“A big thank you to everyone working at the County Jail,” the sign read. “Thank you for your dedication and tireless work. You’re essential and we’re grateful.”
“What a bunch of bullshit,” an employee told the Current earlier this year under the condition that they not be named.
“If you really want to thank me, give me a mask and gloves.”
That was in April. But if employees believed they weren’t treated like essential workers then, administrative policies of the past nine months have continued to fail to provide proper mitigation efforts of COVID-19.
In December 2020, the COVID-19 positivity rate for ACJ staff was 68 percent–nearly twice the rate in Allegheny County, which was 37 percent. Across the state of Pennsylvania, the rate was 15 percent.
By mid-December, due to infections and quarantines, staffing levels hit what several ACJ employees told the Current at the time were “critically low.”
“Hell, it might be quicker to tell you who did come to work today then who didn’t,” one employee said in December. Each day, employees would get emails from the jail administration looking for employees to cover shifts. According to emails obtained by the Current, some shifts were short-staffed more than three dozen corrections officers. One word used by several sources to describe the situation was “shitshow.”
To be fair, COVID-19 has taken its toll on many workplaces. But it’s not just the short shifts that have bothered corrections officers, they say the jail’s policies during the pandemic have been solidly anti-worker. Employees have talked about a consistent lack of PPE, large amounts of forced overtime, no hazard pay and no paid time off for forced quarantines, even when the employee came in contact with COVID-19 while at work.
Last month, an online petition sought support for hazard pay for employees. The page read:
“The Corrections Officers at the ACJ received no hazard pay raises. We’ve weathered over 113,000 hours of overtime since the pandemic started in March. We’ve been forced to work with less staff, inadequate PPE, and multiple forced unpaid quarantines. We’ve risked our health coming to work every day. Let’s tell Rich Fitzgerald and County Council it’s time to recognize our dedication with a hazard bonus.”
At January’s Jail Oversight Board meeting, board members again asked Warden Orlando Harper about hazard pay. His response on the issue was to not give a response citing the jail’s collective bargaining agreement.
“I can not discuss union because it’s negotiated business pertaining to the hazard pay as I stated before. I can not talk about the hazard pay because that’s under the collective bargaining agreement. I’m still going to stick to my statement from before,” Harper said.
During the board’s public comment period, several questions were submitted regarding the issue.
“Why does the jail board and Warden Harper continue refusing to answer why jail officers and medical staff aren’t receiving hazard pay from the CARES Act? For the last three meetings you have actively avoided asking and answering this question. What happened to the money and what is the justification for not giving it to us? The county has the audacity to buy two vinyl banners that tell us we’re essential and appreciated and yet we take our staffing to a minimum due to the pandemic and have gone almost an entire year working in this environment without receiving hazard pay.”
In Jan., Allegheny County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Olivia Bennett introduced legislation that would provide hazard pay to ACJ employees. However, that measure was voted down in a 6-4 vote. Sam DeMarco, Robert Macey, John Palmieri, Nicholas Futules, and Paul Zavarella voted no.
Members Thomas Baker, Tom Duerr and Paul Klein abstained without explanation. According to Allegheny County Rules of Council (Article 2, Rule 0.7), “A council member may abstain from voting only when the abstention is accompanied by an explanation.”
Council President Patrick Catena and member DeWitt Walton were absent.
“It’s important to fight for workers at the same time we’re fighting for all vulnerable populations,” Hallam said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Jaclyn Kurin, an attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center says that the ACJ had staffing and safety issues before the pandemic. But now, “with increased staffing shortages due to exposure and quarantine, and the administration’s refusal to adequately test people at the jail, these unconstitutional shortcomings will cost lives.”
The large number of infected, or possibly infected, employees increased last November when some employees attended a party and a wedding in the same weekend. After that, the virus was brought into the jail and a large number of incarcerated folks and employees either got sick or were forced into mandatory quarantine.
But Kurin says she believes the number is underreported because of other ACJ policies that hurt employees who come forward. For example, if an employee is forced to quarantine, they must use up all of their available leave if they want to continue to be paid, even if they were exposed to the virus at work.
“Even if the CO was exposed to Covid at work, ACJ will initially use the officer’s vacation or sick leave for the days he or she is quarantined,” Kurin said, “COs must then negotiate a cumbersome, inscrutable process for getting reimbursed for the quarantined days. Many COs have been quarantined several times because ACJ still fails to implement basic CDC guidance at the jail. Those COs have reported that due to the repeated quarantines they didn’t receive a paycheck for the two-week period.”
While this is the policy at the ACJ, it’s not the same at other county agencies. At the JOB meeting, County Sheriff Bill Mullen said that if Allegheny County Sheriff deputies are exposed at work, they are paid for the time that they are forced to quarantine. This same protocol applies to Allegheny County Police.
“With the Allegheny County Council 6-4 vote against providing COs with hazard pay,” Kurin said. “COs are presented with an unfair and unsafe choice of deciding whether to work while possibly infected or being unable to provide for their families.”
Jail Oversight Board meetings are open to the public and are held at 4 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month. The board meets this afternoon. Topics on the agenda include Warden Orlando Harper’s Feb. 2021 report and the ACJ healthcare staff vacancies.