Annual PEF-DOCCS L-M forum allows lively back-and-forth
Photos and story By SHERRY HALBROOK
Many PEF leaders and rank-and-file members attended the annual PEF-DOCCS (Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) labor-management conference in Lake Placid May 29-31, an event that traditionally offers uncommon opportunities for members to ask questions, share experiences and insights and speak directly with top agency officials about workplace issues in an open forum. The union also takes the opportunity to provide workshops and training on a variety of issues.
The open forum, chaired by PEF’s corrections L-M co-chair at DOCCS, Stephen Drake, is the highlight of the event and members lined up at the microphones for their turns to speak.
Daniel Martuscello, acting executive deputy commissioner and the agency’s L-M co-chair, fielded most of their questions. The agency combines both correctional and parole services and the questions and comments spanned both branches and their issues.
Acting DOCCS Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci welcomed the PEF representatives, saying the conference and forum serve many different purposes.
“Let us hear what matters most to you,” Annucci said. Commenting on what a “huge and complicated agency this is,” he recognized the conference and forum as an “opportunity to collaborate and make this the best corrections agency in the country.”
- W. Miller, a nurse 2 at Greenhaven Correctional Facility raised the issue of critically low staffing. Greenhaven, he said, has 13 nurses to work the 24-hour, 365-days/year schedule. Another 13 nurses’ positions are vacant, one is out on long-term sick leave, and one is out on long-term discipline.
“We can’t do it anymore,” Miller said. When the nurses who are working request permission to use their accrued vacation leave, they are often denied for one day in the middle of the time period they’ve requested. If they have reservations for flights and hotels to stay out of state, or even out of the country, that denial of one day creates an impossible situation, he said.
“You are setting us up to go AWOL (away without leave). Nurses need their time off. It’s got to be done,” Miller said.
“The problem is systemic. There’s no magic solution. It’s a long-term national problem,” Martuscello responded.
William Mack Jr., who works at Southport CF, said “It’s hard to recruit nurses to work in antiquated facilities where there are very few promotion opportunities. Our salaries need to exceed those in other sectors because we have so many things working against us.”
Martuscello said, “It’s hard to get a new fill if we follow the negotiated assignment list. We’re passing staff from one facility to the next.”
PEF Region 3 Coordinator Colleen Williams asked what DOCCS is doing to address the nursing shortage.
Martuscello said, “We’re hiring nurse 2s now, more than nurse 1s. We’re trying to involve more colleges to work with us, but there aren’t even enough nursing instructors. We’re very aggressively talking about it and trying to recruit, retain and grow nurses within our department. It’s a team effort.”
Mack said DOCCS red tape is creating time and treatment issues for nurses who must give psychiatric medications to inmates.
“We can’t speak directly to a psychiatrist about the new prescription. We have to spend days trying to do this through other channels. We speak the same (technical) language as the doctor, but the people who speak for us don’t,” Mack said.
He was told it happens because of a policy from the state Office of Mental Health, but DOCCS will look into it.
Another PEF member raised issues related to getting time off approved for personal business, which sometimes may be on the same day they need to charge sick leave for medical appointments.
A teacher at one of the correctional facilities said DOCCS has eliminated 10-minute bathroom breaks for inmates, who are angry and may react violently.
“Corrections officers are 20 to 30 feet away from our classes. Our classroom doors open inward and inmates could barricade them,” the teacher said. “When we complained (to the facility managers), we were told they didn’t want to meet with us on that issue. Just put on our big girl pants and deal with it.”
Several PEF members brought up the need for more staffing in job titles that are necessary for the professional staff to function efficiently. When security positions are vacant, staff injuries increase.
Martuscello said DOCCS has tried to keep some positions open to accept employees who need to transfer from the two prisons that are closing. Now that the department knows which prisons are closing, it can now begin filling more vacancies.
“We talk with the governor’s office about more than just (hiring) nurses. Our goal is to fill these jobs,” Martuscello said.
Hazardous duty pay
Derek Vandewater from Adirondack CF said employees had worked very hard and put in overtime to prepare the facility to receive youthful offenders, but the necessary staffing was not provided. Within a very short time four corrections officers, one maintenance worker and one other worker were assaulted. The member said DOCCS should provide hazardous duty pay to its employees even if they don’t spend more than 50 percent of their worktime with inmates. The member asked DOCCS to “please speak to the state Commissioner of Civil Service to bring back hazardous duty pay for these employees.” The request was met with applause from the other PEF members present.
Martuscello said, “It’s a rule covered by Civil Service Law and it applies to all state agencies. We have an obligation to follow that law.” He said employees can appeal to the state DCS Division of Classification and Compensation if they think they meet the requirement of spending 50 percent or more of their time with inmates. If that appeal is denied, the employee can try to appeal that decision to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
It was also explained that the law prohibits youthful offenders from working in facility kitchens or building maintenance, which means state employees who supervise or staff those programs have less inmate-contact time than they had when the facility housed adult offenders.
The PEF member said it is dangerous for the employees, even if they have less than 50 percent exposure.
PEF Division 351 Leader Alan Bourg said there is a problem across the system of inmates disrespecting staff.
“Inmates are openly disrespecting people,” Bourg said. “The lack of progressive discipline is a problem. You’re not only going to make the system unsafe for employees, you’re going to make it unsafe for inmates.”
Martuscello said DOCCS must abide by new time limits for how long an inmate can spend in a secure housing unit (that isolates them and restricts their interactions with other inmates and staff).
“We need programs that will address their issues, and we are getting information that they are changing their behavior,” Martuscello said.
Bourg said that for inmates who are 18 to 21 years old “the bar is raised so high. It takes multiple infractions to have a guy removed from a class or program. They just laugh at you.”
Bourg also complained that when an employee is out on sick leave DOCCS may refuse to pay them or to allow them to return to work until they are seen by a doctor chosen by DOCCS to verify the statement by the employee’s doctor as to whether the employee is sick or fit for duty. Bourg cited a case where the doctor chosen by DOCCS was not quickly available and the employee had to go 20 days without pay until the matter was resolved.
Martuscello said, “We don’t like it to take so long either, but we’re subject to the availability of the doctor.” Bourg asked if DOCCS could waive the requirement for a second doctor’s opinion, and Martuscello said yes.
Parole officer Anthony Prave complained that bidding for overtime and the level of offenders under supervision are no longer being done consistently on the basis of seniority. “It’s not working,” he said.
Prave said that although he had experience supervising sex offenders in a mixed caseload, he was passed over for someone with no experience.
Martuscello said sometimes DOCCS decides on the basis of interviews, rather than seniority or experience.
“I think management has to have the flexibility to select the right person at the right time,” he said.
Vincent Sherman from Gowanda CF, raised the issue of illicit drugs in the prisons.
“Unfortunately, we have a drug problem,” Sherman said. “At our last labor-management meeting we were told we would be greeted by (drug-sniffing) dogs at the door. I’m concerned about K2 and syboxtin, because they can make an inmate behave unpredictably. They may account for a lot of the violence we’re seeing.”
Commissioner Annucci responded, saying, “You’re right and I’m really frustrated by the efforts to get drugs into the facilities. We look for everything (to stop it), every new technique. I’m committed to try to maintain drug-free facilities. You’re right that the majority of employees are good (not smuggling drugs into the prisons). And we are creating incentives for inmates to stay off them.”
Martuscello added, “It’s a problem at correctional facilities across the country. Our staff is doing a great job. Whenever we find a visitor with drugs we’re trying to trace it back to the dealer and the source.”
Another DOCCS official said the agency is training kitchen and mailroom staff on how to watch for drugs being smuggled inside produce, meat or packaged items.
When a parole officer asked, “What is DOCCS’ policy on bullying?” Martuscello immediately replied, “Zero tolerance.”
The PEF member said she had witnessed bullying.
“Every time we are aware of bullying allegations, it is followed up and investigated,” Martuscello said. “It is a thorough investigation, but it may find that it’s one person’s word against another person’s word.“
Parole officer Sharon Sealey asked, “How can we complain about bullying when management is the bad actor? We are the ones who end up being investigated. Supervisory staff have weaponized counseling memos, notices of discipline and using investigative staff as their attack dogs.”
She was told, “You should go around the bad actors (to report bullying), but you can’t skip all the way to the top.”
Martuscello said notices of discipline cannot be issued locally. They must be referred to the top level officials, who have a uniform approach to discipline, for review. Investigations exonerate more employees than they find culpable.
When Sealey said a supervisor had challenged an employee to fight out their differences in the parking lot, Martuscello said, “That should be reported immediately. It has to be reported.”
“People are afraid to report it because they still have time left to work (before they can retire),” Sealey said.
Lindsay Bonanza of Mohawk CF said, “Our staff constantly must adjust to a revolving door of supervisors. It results in more bullying. Experienced staff (members) deserve more respect. We are asking everyone to take our Health and Safety Committee bullying survey.”
Martuscello said, “We’ve taken that seriously and we’ve expanded training. Don’t change (assignments or jobs) just for change’s sake.” He added, “You are mandated to turn over bullying complaints to GOER (the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations).”
“I really don’t believe that message is getting through,” Bonanza said. “I’ve had three supervisors in two years. New supervisors (commonly) show disrespect to longtime professionals.”
Edward Miron from Moriah Shock CF asked, “What’s the status of new personal alarms (for staff)?”
He was told DOCCS has active projects going throughout the state to install full camera and personal alarm systems. DOCCS had to find a new vendor to replace broken alarms, but it is now planning to expand.
Parole officer Dayna Lamb said the lack of radios in good working condition is creating a safety hazard for officers in Nassau County. She said that after two officers were injured, but couldn’t summon help, a parole officer used his own money to buy six radios for use by him and fellow officers.
Lamb said the lack of DOCCS vehicles in good working order and equipped with emergency sirens and flashing lights is also creating a safety hazard for parole officers.
“Our cars are broken down and only two of the five have lights and sirens,” Lamb said. “It is very frustrating to have the car break down when we have a parole violator with us in the car.”
Martuscello told her, “This is the first we are hearing of this. Don’t let these things fester. We’ll try to get the radios as soon as possible. We talked about the cars at labor-management. We have 82 vehicles, but they don’t all have lights and sirens. We are committed to seeing you have safe cars and we’re committed to replacing the fleet.”
PEF President Wayne Spence, who is a parole officer and worked in Nassau County, said, “It took six months to buy radios and get them programmed by Nassau County. There were never enough radios for staff at parole.”
Martuscello said, “We have a statewide radio coordinator. This is surprising for us to hear. We’ll take this back (for further review).”
Parole officer Vikky Urena said local labor-management meetings are not taking place where she works in New York City.
“You have to have that dialogue. Coming here is really critical to let us know what is going on. We can’t get out to every worksite,” Martuscello said.
Annucci added that he needs to know unvarnished facts and situations.
“When something really bad happens, I’m not going to second guess the line parole officer. We’re getting a lot of pressure right now from the Legislature (to reduce incarceration, let more inmates out on parole sooner and tolerate more parole violations before sending a parolee back to prison). So, don’t lie to me. Just give me honest information when I need it quickly,” the commissioner said.
Parole officer Tony Perez, who is PEF’s L-M chair for community supervision, complained that management recently sent a parole officer to a correctional facility for drug testing, even though that should have been done privately at the local parole office. Parolees saw the parole officer being taken for drug testing, which undermines their respect for officers.
When Martuscello said it was necessary for safety’s sake, Perez responded that after they tested the officer, management allowed her to drive herself home.
Martuscello said DOCCS told him they sent the officer to a correctional facility because the testing equipment was not available on site.
“They didn’t ask,” Perez said. “We’ve got to put safety first, but we also have to secure the safety of the process. I called about this situation and was hung up on by a bureau chief. If that’s her attitude with me, how bad is it for someone else?”
Spence said he also had been contacted while this situation was unfolding.
“This member’s personal car was parked on a public street (not in a DOCCS parking lot). Management wanted to search it. I told them no. That’s why I’m very distressed by that,” Spence said.
“It was a request to search,” Martuscello said.
Both Perez and Spence said, “She was pressured to say yes.”
Another officer said DOCCS tells officers they must use their personal vehicles on the job when no DOCCS vehicle is available, but employees’ insurance companies don’t want to be liable for damage to the vehicle when it’s being used for work, especially transporting parolees.
“You can’t just stop using your personal vehicle (for work),” Martuscello said.
“I’m going to have to disagree,” Spence responded. “I got a counseling memo when I refused to use my car.”
Spence said it is unacceptable for DOCCS to force officers to use their personal vehicles and the union will do whatever is necessary to protect members’ rights, even if it requires litigation.