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SEIU calls for closure of halfway houses for ‘knowingly’ putting employees, residents at risk to COVID-19

By April 22, 2020 No Comments

By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor

On a day when the Allegheny County Jail reported that 65 percent of its inmates housed in an alternative-housing facility have tested positive for COVID-19. The union representing employees at the Program for Offenders halfway homes say the facilities’ containment procedures for the coronavirus have been extremely unsuccessful if they exist at all. And they want the facilities closed until proper measures can be taken.

ACTA (Allegheny County Treatment Alternative) is a 50-bed facility for men located in Oakland that runs The Program for Offenders, a “residential alternative to incarceration.” It offers in-house drug and alcohol treatment. A facility in Homestead is used for women offenders. Both facilities contract its services to the Allegheny County Jail. And although the residents are in another facility, they are still under the power of the ACJ. The Pittsburgh Current covered the high number of infections at ACTA earlier Wednesday.

Union officials with SEIU Local 668 released a statement Wednesday night outlining problems at the facility which includes terminating an employee who was ordered into self-quarantine by his doctor.

According to the Release:

Ernest Daniels, a counselor and direct care worker for the Program for Offenders halfway home in Allegheny County, knew he was at-risk of contracting COVID-19 from one of the 900+ recently released inmates from the county jail. His managers didn’t provide any PPE for staff until April 6th; there’s no quarantine process for residents who just came from the Allegheny County Jail; and the actual layout of the halfway houses doesn’t allow for proper social distancing.  When he began presenting with symptoms, Ernest contacted his doctor and was told to immediately begin the self-quarantine process, which included informing his employer. Two days into his self-quarantine, Ernest learned from fellow employees that he had been terminated from his position. The non-profit, which is heavily funded by Allegheny County, claims that Ernest was fired for not wearing his protective mask while working one of the many twelve-hour shifts the halfway houses have run for the past many weeks.

“It’s hard to put into words just how unacceptable this attack on a worker like Ernest is,” SEIU Local 668 President Steve Catanese said. “Direct-care workers have been on the front lines providing support during this pandemic, while Program for Offenders management has knowingly exposed its own staff to this deadly virus. Ernest is a dedicated worker and was one of the strongest voices for bringing a collective, unionized voice to his workplace. What happened today underscores how important that is. What does it say about the values of an employer that would fire someone under those circumstances?” 

An anonymous employee told the Current Wednesday night that neither employees nor residents at the women’s facilities have even been tested. That assertion was also confirmed by the SEIU release.

According to the Release:

The number of female residents and workers who are positive for the virus is still unknown–the management and administrative team for the Program for Offenders has so far refused to provide testing to anyone inside the women’s facility. 

The workers inside these halfway homes don’t have the proper supplies to protect themselves or their residents. The PPE provided ran out quickly, and staff members were left scrambling to find supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to bring into the homes. 

“Our managers aren’t doing enough to protect us or the people we serve,” Richard, a worker inside the male halfway home said late Wednesday in the statement. “They keep admitting more parolees from the county jail and it’s continuing to spread the virus to more workers and residents.” 

“This is unacceptable,” president Steve Catanese said. “These are direct-care workers who have managers who are knowingly exposing their employees to this deadly virus. If they can’t protect their workers and the people they serve, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.” 

SEIU Local 668 is calling for the immediate closure of the Program for Offenders halfway homes for the protection of its residents as well as its employees. Until proper social distancing procedures and sweeping health and safety policies are implemented, the homes will continue to be a source of community spread and will continue to infect residents and workers alike. 

On Wednesday, Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam said the alt-housing facilities are under the purview of the Jail Oversight Board, of which she is a member, but April’s meeting was canceled and she says that prevented th eboard from monitoring the situation at these facilities and the Allegheny County Jail.

“It’s common knowledge that the Allegheny County Jail has had problems in the past with containing the spread of illnesses, but a lesser talked about issue is that the County’s alternative housing facilities such as ACTA, Renewal, and the Female Offenders program are ill-equipped to follow the proper CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Hallam said. “Now more than ever we need outside, independent monitoring of these facilities – exactly the type of oversight that the Jail Oversight Board is statutorily mandated to provide, yet it hasn’t convened in almost 2 months.”

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