By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF gave state legislators disturbing facts at a joint budget hearing February 10 and asked them to use their common sense and reject state proposals that will cost taxpayers more and provide fewer services and benefits to New Yorkers.
The hearing was one of several held jointly by the state Senate and Assembly to hear public comment on portions of the governor’s proposed state budget for fiscal year 2021-22 that begins April 1. This hearing covered state public protection services, plus the Office of Information Technology Systems.
In his written testimony, PEF President Wayne Spence outlined issues of great concern to the union and its members, particularly those involving understaffing, health and safety, the privatization of public services, and the erosion of merit and fitness standards for the hiring and promotion of state employees.
Spence highlighted the crucial role PEF members continue to play in maintaining essential state services through the COVID-19 pandemic even when it puts them in personal danger.
“My members have risked their lives and those of their families to maintain the continuity and quality of services to New York’s most vulnerable citizens,” Spence said. “They help to rehabilitate those who have violated the law and to counsel and provide safety-net services for at-risk youth. Our members take a great deal of pride in their work because they’re professionals and they care, (but they) have received no recognition or remuneration for their selfless and dedicated service. In fact, this proposed budget seeks to privatize many of the critical public services they provide, relocate their jobs to other regions of the state and cut the health insurance benefits that they have earned as faithful and dedicated public servants.
“We need to learn a lesson from this experience. New York needs to develop greater capacity to deliver needed services and to address the current and future disasters in a timely, efficient and cost-effective manner.
“That can not be achieved with private contractors performing public services.”
Turning to the approximately 5,000 PEF members who work for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), Spence said the state must allow them to be vaccinated right away, along with inmates.
“Since we continue to hear from the public that staff is the source of COVID-19 in our prisons, why would the state not allow the department to vaccinate its employees?” he asked.
Not only is the state putting its employees at DOCCS in greater danger from the virus, the proposed budget would allow serious disruptions throughout the correctional system.
Spence emphasized that “PEF vehemently opposes” the governor’s budget proposal that would allow him to close any number of correctional facilities with only 90-days notice throughout the next two budget years ending March 31, 2023.
“PEF implores the Legislature to keep the current law in place that requires 12 months’ notice of a facility closure!” Spence said.
While the proposed budget doesn’t call for the outright layoff of state employees, that is actually very deceptive. For example, when DOCCS recently closed three correctional facilities under the current budget, it led to the attrition of 1,247 individuals working in these facilities.”
The budget proposal “will adversely impact more than a thousand state workers,” Spence wrote, and it presumes the attrition of 800 workers.
“They are clearly forcing workers to either retire or otherwise separate themselves from state employment,” Spence testified. “Some employees will be offered a job that may pay less and could be located 80 or 100 miles away. This is a clear disincentive to remain with the state. If the employee accepts a new position at a different location, it may impact or “bump” an employee with less seniority at that facility.”
This disruption to the state workforce will only undermine employee retention and recruitment and exacerbate the rampant understaffing problems that plague so many state facilities.
Spence said staffing shortages in the DOCCS health care system are “a major concern. The vacancy rates in the titles of nursing, dental and pharmacist have continued to increase over the last year. Vacancy rates for nursing exceed 27 percent, dental 31 percent and pharmacy is now over 10 percent.
“While these numbers are bad,” Spence said. “The reality is far worse. We have facilities managing 24-hour care for both inmates and staff that are at vacancy rates exceeding 50 percent. To name just a few: 58 percent at Cape Vincent, 62 percent at Green Haven, 64 percent at Sing Sing. We have 12 facilities (up from five last year) in total that have greater than 40 percent vacancies and 23 facilities with vacancy rates higher than 30 percent in nursing titles alone.”
“At Elmira, there are currently more agency (traveling) nurses working at the facility than actual full-time state-employed nurses,” Spence said.
“Actual salary-based increases will help stabilize our staffing needs. If the state is serious about attracting and keeping skilled nurses, it is imperative that we begin to look at increasing the base pay for them. Increases are needed for all medical titles within the state workforce.”
In addition to growing reliance on private contractors, chronic understaffing has caused overtime expenses at state agencies to spiral out of control.
“Reliance on overtime to provide adequate staff levels clearly demonstrates the need to reinvest in the state workforce. The taxpayers’ best interest is served by employing the proper number of state employees at state agencies,” Spence said.
These staffing shortages have happened during the pandemic, and at a time of mounting public pressure to release inmates on parole whether they are prepared and otherwise eligible for parole or not, and that has increased violence in the facilities and the danger for facility staff and parole officers as well as for inmates and parolees.
In a January 1 report DOCCS lists 1,047 assaults on staff statewide by inmates in 2020, up from 972 in 2018, and 895 in 2015.
“What the data does not show,” Spence said,” is the number of near misses our members experience in facilities daily. Nor does it account for some actions by inmates that may not be recorded as assaults, such as threats or the throwing of bodily fluids, which may contain infectious diseases.
As the state has moved some of its older, medically vulnerable and presumably less violent inmates onto early parole to reduce infection danger in the facilities, and has yielded to public and political pressure to reduce disciplinary practices, the changes have heightened the risk of violence within the facilities, PEF testified.
“While smaller, the current population is more violent than ever before,” Spence said. “The administrative changes regarding how inmates are charged with disciplinary violations have empowered and emboldened them to violently stand up against staff. The department continues to provide additional pepper spray as well as enhanced trainings with staff to assist in dealing with these situations.”
Spence also stressed the need to upgrade the staff’s aging personal alarm system at DOCCS. The current system dates to pre-1994. The most recent upgrades, which started in 2009, have not reached 25 percent of facilities.
“The department has continued to put in multimillion-dollar camera systems as well as many other changes. Meanwhile, we are still left with a personal alarm that has an operating system using Windows 9.7 and alarms and repeaters that can only be fixed by using parts found on eBay. I know we are in financially tough times, but I ask you how to quantify the cost of a life lost or a negative life changing event?” Spence said.
The PEF leader cautioned the lawmakers to tread carefully regarding some of the proposed bills that would make further changes at DOCCS.
“Proposed Legislation such as the HALT bill will impact not only the overall safety of staff, but impose an “only the strong survive” environment for the inmates,” Spence said. HALT would interfere with DOCCS’ ability to hold inmates to acceptable standards of behavior. “Continuing to restrict a staff’s choice of sanctions only allows inmates to develop more manipulative skills.”
The better way to help inmates, Spence said, is to invest in more and earlier programs for inmates.
“If inmates received programs such as Aggression Replacement Training or Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment as they enter into incarceration, it would give them the tools to make better choices, both while incarcerated as well as after their release. This would be a better investment than simply allowing inmates to manipulate a law that only allows for 15 days SHU (isolation in a Special Housing Unit) time.”
The pandemic has resulted in one positive change in the correctional system — nearly total elimination of the double bunking of inmates – and Spence urged the legislators to pass a bill to make that change permanent.
As more inmates are released on parole, the workload is being shifted to state parole officers.
“These officers are already overworked and most have caseloads that are much too high. They cannot possibly handle additional parolees with the current amount of resources provided to them. There needs to be adequate staffing to help parolees transition back to life outside of prison and help them with all aspects of their lives,” Spence testified.
He said PEF opposes the so-called “Less is More” legislation that would “remove all meaningful consequences for bad actors, tie the hands of parole officers and make it much harder for them to help parolees transition successfully back into society. With the number of violent crimes on law enforcement personnel on the rise, the timing of this proposal could not be worse. Eliminating the potential sanctions levied against parolees for violating the terms of their parole hurts the ability of parole officers to facilitate the rehabilitation process, reinforces negative behaviors and potentially puts the community at risk.”
Meanwhile, as more inmates are being released, parole violations are increasing.
The state, Spence said, “needs to stay the course by investing in mental health, job training and other services for our entire inmate population and by hiring additional parole officers to help the growing number of parolees bridge the transition back into society.”
Turning to critical issues raised by budget proposals for meeting the state’s IT needs, Spence said, “Our staff has worked diligently to streamline access to services across the agencies, despite the fact that the state has not adequately filled vacancies caused by attrition and retirement.”
Instead, the state continues to privatize the state’s information technology (IT) services, and would amend the law to allow OITS (Office of Information Technology Services) to unilaterally enter into comprehensive technology service contracts. This proposal would allow the same firm to design and implement IT systems for the state, and will eventually reduce the state workforce and likely cause the outsourcing of these positions to other parts of the globe in the public cloud.”
“There is no need to outsource this phase of IT service delivery to an outside vendor, as proposed. This work can be done in-house with appropriate hiring practices and by investing in training for existing OITS staff.
“These third-party vendors are not always cost effective,” Spence said. “They often have problems enforcing federal, state and local regulations; maintain questionable data safety and security protocols and protections; and have difficulty integrating cloud-based applications with on-premises applications and data. This proposal will empower the director of OITS to select preferred vendors, circumvent the existing Advisory Council for such decisions and eliminate the preferred vendor bidding process.
Spence strongly urged legislators to reject these budget proposals.
“Instead of increasing the state’s reliance on costly consultants, the most cost-effective option to enhance the state’s IT infrastructure is to invest in the state workforce at OITS,” Spence told them. The Executive Budget proposes an appropriation of $2 million at OITS to help staff achieve the specific certifications needed most to meet the state’s needs.
“We must ensure that this money is allocated and, more importantly, spent on its intended purpose so that the state can meet its need with qualified, in-house professionals. “
Spence drew the lawmakers’ attention to OITS’ loss of institutional knowledge as many of its employees retire, and the agency’s lack of “any strategic workforce development plan for succession, knowledge transfer, skill development and/or using shadow titles.”
These retirements and loss of institutional knowledge should be opening career advancement opportunities for younger staff, but the state Civil Service system is not reliably working to bring the most capable job candidates forward.
“There are many instances of erosion of the Civil Service merit and fitness system,” Spence said. “While open competitive exams are being offered, there are already hundreds of employees on the current promotional lists who are not being provided any opportunity or consideration for advancement. This has negative effects on employee morale. If a promotional test is being offered, an open competitive test for the same position should not be held.
“Recruitment and promotion is a major issue at the agency,” Spence continued. “Too often, the agency utilizes the selective certification process which actually targets an individual, not a position. We believe that this process should be severely curtailed and in instances where it is used, it should be more transparent.
“The Public Employees Federation believes the state and its taxpayers are much better served over the long-term by investing in OITS and its staff, so that it can continue to deliver excellent and efficient IT services for the state agencies and the residents who utilize state services.
Read the full written testimony here.