The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Less than half of New Jersey’s state corrections workers are vaccinated hours before the deadline requiring they have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but the extent of the mandate’s impact on prison staffing likely won’t come into sharp relief for weeks.
About 43% of the roughly 7,280 civilian and uniformed staff at the Department of Corrections had received a COVID-19 vaccine, Liz Velez, the department’s communications director, said Wednesday afternoon.
Tonight is the deadline for prison staff to receive their first jabs after the state Supreme Court Monday declined to block Gov. Phil Murphy’s vaccine mandate for workers at health care centers, nursing homes, correctional facilities, and other congregate settings.
Police unions sued to halt the mandate, calling it governmental overreach and saying it would lead to a mass exodus of jail staff.
“For those members that showed up since March of 2020 when the rest of the world was on Zoom, showed up to the prisons, locked themselves behind bars 10 or 11 months before a vaccine was even available to anybody —seems like at midnight tonight, many are going to be tossed out with the bathwater,” said Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.
The affected workers’ vaccine regimen must be complete by March 30. Anyone who has not received a booster by then must do so within three weeks of becoming eligible for the additional dose.
Until now the workers affected by the mandate have been able to avoid getting the vaccine and undergo regular testing for COVID-19 instead. Murphy’s Jan. 20 order did away with that option, though it still provides for religious and medical exemptions.
Corrections workers who don’t comply with the order face termination, though those dismissals won’t be immediate.
“Barring an approved exemption, staff who are not timely vaccinated will be given notice of non-compliance, with three days from the date of the notice to comply,” Velez said, adding those who don’t comply will be suspended without pay after a disciplinary hearing while they await the conclusion of termination proceedings.
Exemption requests are also due at midnight Wednesday. Those will take some time to process, and applicants won’t be suspended while their requests are under consideration. Workers can appeal a denial.
Velez added the department has been offering staff and inmates Moderna vaccines since December 2021, noting the practice would continue after the mandate goes into effect.
An appellate ruling against the police unions’ bid to block the mandate was issued Friday, and the state Supreme Court subsequently declined to enjoin Murphy’s order, saying in a 5-2 decision the unions’ charges of personal harm do not outweigh the public interest of having vaccinated jail staff.
Union officials have warned mass resignations of corrections workers would worsen existing staff shortages.
“A lot of people don’t realize the state was losing 15 correctional police officers a pay period long before this mandate was signed,” Colligan said. “This is people just literally walking away from the job because they don’t want to do it anymore. I think we’re losing sight of that, too. We don’t exactly have a long line of applicants waiting to jump into their spots.”
Roughly 1,400 corrections officers covered by the union are eligible to retire, Colligan said, though it’s unclear how many of those officers have been vaccinated. Also unclear is the effect the mandate will have on county correctional facilities, whose workers are also subject to the mandate.
William Sullivan, president of NJ PBA Local 105, which represents state corrections officials, predicted state facilities could adjust to lower staffing levels by consolidating prison populations into a smaller set of facilities but said that might not be possible for counties because they already share services.
New Jersey’s prison population dropped sharply after Murphy signed a 2020 law allowing some prisoners to be released early to stem the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Roughly 5,500 people have been released, and many criminal trials have been delayed because of space constraints related to the pandemic.
County facilities could seek some additional staffing from county sheriff’s offices, Sullivan said — sheriffs run some county correctional facilities — and some counties may be less zealous in enforcing the mandate than others.
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