Months later, fewer worries about prison worker exodus over vaccine mandate

Union leader expects most exemption requests to be granted

By: - May 11, 2022 7:31 am

Nearly three-quarters of state corrections department workers are vaccinated ahead of the May 11 deadline. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Two months after Gov. Phil Murphy delayed a deadline for workers in congregate settings to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, concerns about a staff exodus at the Department of Corrections have largely abated, with nearly three-quarters of workers vaccinated ahead of the May 11 cutoff.

As of April 25, 72% of the department’s staff had completed their initial vaccine regiment and received a booster, according to department spokesman Dan Sperrazza. The vaccination rate had been about 51% in early March, when Murphy moved the mandate deadline to May.

Statewide, 78% of all residents are fully vaccinated (children under the age of five are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine).

Union officials representing corrections officers — who fought Murphy’s mandate in court and lost — had warned the requirement would lead workers to resign or retire, crippling operations. Though a full accounting of staff vaccinations is still incomplete, the feared exodus has not happened yet.

“The vaccine mandate has not had any significant impacts to staffing resources or the operations of the department,” Sperrazza said. “We continue to work with all of our staff to educate them on the benefits and encourage them to receive a vaccination.”

The department has placed two workers who did not comply with the mandate or seek an exemption on unpaid leave, but none have been fired yet, Sperrazza said.

More recent data on the number of vaccinated corrections employees is unavailable because officials are still tallying documents submitted by workers, Sperrazza said. He added the department expects a surge in vaccine reporting in advance of the May 11 deadline.

The executive order allows workers to receive their booster shot after the deadline if they only recently became eligible for it, though they must receive it within three weeks of becoming eligible.

The deadline comes into effect days after New Jersey’s daily COVID-19 case counts hit a three-month high. On Friday, the state reported 3,387 new confirmed cases, the first time it announced more than 3,000 cases since Feb. 3. On Tuesday, the state reported 3,083 cases.

William Sullivan, president of New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents correctional police, said staff is “coming around” on vaccines and noted some still believe their requests for exemptions will get approved.

“I think the 8% raise they gave us helped out with that,” he said.

In January, the Legislature approved and Murphy signed a bill that, among other measures meant to improve recruiting and retention at the department, raised the starting salary for correctional police officers from $40,000 to $48,000, with an 8% increase for all other corrections officers.

Those raises became effective on April 23, acting Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said in a letter reviewed by the New Jersey Monitor.

Exemption expectations

While most corrections workers have now complied with the vaccination requirement, the mandate’s impact on the department’s staffing will depend on roughly 1,600 applications for religious exemptions filed by workers.

Sullivan said he expects 216 of those to be denied because they did not follow Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, which require employees to outline their religious basis for vaccine opposition.

“Those are people that mostly put like ‘I don’t want a vaccine because Joe Biden told me to do it.’ Those type will be denied, but I’m hearing the bulk of the exemptions will be approved,” he said. “I guess we’ll know in a couple days.”

It’s not clear when the department will issue decisions on exemption applications, but applicants won’t be suspended while their requests are under consideration and workers are able to appeal a denial. The department has also received roughly 265 medical exemption requests.

The Juvenile Justice Commission, which operates New Jersey’s youth prisons, denied all requests for religious exemptions.

“As long as the exemptions are approved and there are accommodations made, I don’t think we’ll have a problem,” Sullivan said. “If they deny them all like the JJC did, it’s going to be a problem.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.