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COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Could Exacerbate Understaffing in Federal Prisons, Union Warns

Some employees are considering leaving the Bureau of Prisons due to the requirement. 

The Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate is being met with skepticism and criticism from federal prisons employees, prompting some to consider leaving the government. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is one of the federal agencies that was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, due to staff and inmates rotating frequently and sharing close quarters. As of Monday, 42,988 inmates and 7,809 staff had recovered from the coronavirus, according to BOP's data. There had been 261 inmates and six staff deaths. Ten of the inmate deaths were for those in home confinement. Currently, there are 455 inmate and 476 staff active cases. President Biden announced on September 9 a vaccine mandate for federal employees and contractors, unless they request an exemption. 

Brandy Moore, national union secretary treasurer for Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, said she has seen some “back and forth” conversation within the bureau regarding the vaccine mandate.  “We do have a handful of people that are like, ‘They’re necessary’ [or] say they’re scared for their health [without the vaccine]. I think they just think that you know, ‘Hey it’s the government they can tell you what they want you to do.’ ” However, she said there has also been a lot of pushback and concern about the mandate for a variety of reasons, such as: this was not a condition of employment, flu shots are not mandated, there is limited research on the long-term effects of the shots and inmates are not required to be vaccinated. 

The prisons bureau told the union that about 52% of staff are vaccinated, Moore told Government Executive on October 4. She said she believes the “vast majority” of the upper management officials at BOP are vaccinated. 

“The national union is very concerned about the amount of people that have actually said ‘I’m going to retire early, I’m going to quit, I’m going to go somewhere else. I don’t feel like this is a mandate that is constitutional,’ ” Moore said. “And that’s a struggle for us as well…[But] we do feel like it should be an individual’s choice” whether or not he or she gets vaccinated. 

Moore said her personal guess is that the prisons bureau “may lose 10-20% of our staff,” which is “troublesome” because “staffing is our No. 1 concern” and has been since 2016. BOP has tried to “ramp up” hiring, but “I feel like this is three steps back for us,” she said. Moore added that it's often “super hard” to get staffing numbers from the agency. 

Staffing Problems

In a report issued in February, the Government Accountability Office said that from fiscal years 2015 to 2019, BOP spent about $824 million on overtime and from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2019, the bureau’s reliance on augmentation (in which non-custody employees are assigned to custody roles, such as those of correctional officers) increased by 47%. “In reviewing BOP’s data on authorized positions from fiscal years 2015 through March 2020, and in interviewing BOP officials, we identified a number of limitations that affect the reliability of this method for assessing staffing levels,” said the watchdog. “Namely, BOP could not provide documentation or clearly explain how it determines the number of authorized positions for each series, though officials did acknowledge that the number of authorized positions could change over time.” 

BOP “has been in the midst of a staffing crisis that did not just begin with the hiring freeze of January 2017,” Shane Fausey, national president of the BOP union, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. It began with the “mission critical” cuts in 2005, he said, which eliminated more than 10% of all correctional officer posts. “For almost two decades we have warned of the ominous results of underfunding and staffing reductions,” he said.  

He asked Congress to intervene and “immediately elevate the staffing levels across the Bureau of Prisons to the January 2016 level,” when there were 43,369 positions authorized. The fiscal 2020 budget funded 38,739 positions, but as the Associated Press reported, not all of those are filled. The Congressional Bureau of Prisons Reform Caucus, founded and led by Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., has also been vocal on the staffing issue, as exemplified during its recent meeting with the BOP director.

Objections  to the Mandate

On September 28, the Justice Department inspector general released the results of a survey conducted in February about how BOP employees felt their institutions were handling the pandemic. The first survey was done in April 2020. 

At the time of the most recent survey, 18% of respondents said they didn’t plan on getting vaccinated. “A number of staff we surveyed in February 2021 indicated hesitancy or resistance to getting the vaccine,” said the IG office’s report. “We expect [Biden’s] mandate to alter the vaccination plans of many or most of the respondents to our survey who expressed hesitancy or resistance to becoming vaccinated. We nevertheless encourage the BOP [to] take into account the likelihood that some staff could be hesitant or resistant to vaccination as the BOP considers the steps it will take to educate staff about, and to implement, the presidential executive order.”

“I’ve never been forced to do any kind of medical vaccines or anything” such as during the swine flu epidemic, said a BOP employee in Texas who has been with the agency for 19 years, in a recent interview. The employee said he has COVID-19 antibodies and expressed concerns about only one of the vaccines having full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. 

“I might have to find some kind of religion that’s gonna allow me to not get the vaccine,” said the employee with a laugh. “I’m having to do soul-searching as to how I’m going to end my career even though I can still continue working for at least another eight years.” He recognized that he would have to get the vaccine if he decides to stay with the agency. He also pointed out that inmates are not required to be vaccinated. 

A federal law enforcement officer who has been with BOP for 18.5 years provided a lengthy statement to Government Executive opposing the mandate, but said he was not generally an anti-vaxxer. 

“I believe, along with a large number of my co-workers, the executive order is unconstitutional,” said the employee. “I have never had to show a record of my vaccine status for employment.” Initially he said he risked getting fired and losing his pension and benefits if he didn’t get the vaccine, but he said in a follow-up email they “should be intact” even if that happens, although he would not be able to access the retirement benefits until he reaches 62. He is currently 51. The employee applied for a religious exemption and is awaiting the results. 

“Not only are [BOP] employees who work in institutions essential employees who HAD to report to work during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with the possibility of contracting COVID, then passing it to their families,” said the employee. “Now we are being mandated (forced) to take a vaccine, which does not effectively stop getting the virus or spreading the virus but might stop me from going to the hospital if I contract COVID-19…again.” This employee also brought up the staffing issues. 

Parker Strong, president for AFGE Local 1010, a local BOP union, told Government Executive he is not vaccinated and does not “agree with vaccines on any level” because he doesn’t trust the “science and side effects.” For the coronavirus vaccines specifically, he said he is skeptical of the new mRNA technology used for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech options as well as the lack of long-term studies.

At the time of the interview, Strong, who has been with the agency for almost eight years, was working on his exemption request and was prepared to be subject to the disciplinary process if he is not exempt. As a “backup plan” he said he is looking for other jobs. 

Decisions about “medical procedures, when it's vaccines or otherwise...should be made between a person and their medical professionals that they have,” Strong said. “It’s a personal choice not something that the government should be making.” He also noted the staffing issue at the agency.

Bill Schoonmaker, president of AFGE local 683, said he hasn’t seen people looking to leave at his facility because of the mandate, but “I do think it's a driving factor at other locations.” Due to the mandate, he is scheduled to get his first shot next week.

Based on his observations people are against the mandate due to religious reasons; lack of availability of the only vaccine that has full FDA approval (Pfizer/BioNTech); hesitation from former military individuals now working at BOP who took anthrax vaccines and experienced adverse side effects; the vaccine being a “forced condition of employment;” and personal freedom concerns. 

Schoonmaker said he thought both major political parties made the vaccine a “political football.” 

A BOP employee who has been with the agency for 7.5 years and is not vaccinated told Government Executive, “I can’t afford to find another job” because in his area, his BOP job is “one of the best jobs around pay-wise.” He applied for a religious exemption this week.

He said he doesn’t like “how the government thinks they can just make us do whatever they want to do.” If they’re mandating these vaccines, why aren’t they mandating the flu shot, he wondered? The employee said he is not an “anti-vax person” because he received vaccines as a kid. He added he is skeptical of the vaccines because of the lack of long-term studies and possible side effects and said he has a strong immune system from previous COVID exposure. 

This employee was hoping the BOP union would challenge the mandate ahead of the Nov. 22 deadline to get vaccinated. “I can’t afford to lose my job, so when it comes down to it, if I gotta get it I guess I gotta get it even though I really don’t want to,” he said. He added that he is not alone at his institution with his thinking, as “There's a lot of people at work that are against it just on the sheer fact that the government is trying to make us do something.”

At the national level, AFGE, which represents about 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers, said “a direct legal challenge or lawsuit over the order is unavailable,” following an exhaustive review. However, the division of AFGE that represents BOP employees has a different take. 

“Our position has not changed, as Mr. Fausey indicated in his email dated September 10, ‘We are actively pursuing the legal landscape and any and all options that have the potential to protect our members,’” said an email from Council of Prison Locals C-33 leadership to members on September 17, obtained by Government Executive. “Furthermore, ‘We will exhaust all legal options to protect our members.’ With that in mind, as with all other executive orders that have been thrusted upon us, everything takes time. We are working every avenue we can."

Aaron McGlothin, AFGE Local 1237 president, said, “At the end of the day, it should be a personal choice, the agency is forcing it now and we will further deplete our workforce because of this mandate.” 

The Bureau Responds to Skeptics

A BOP spokesperson declined to comment on the vaccine mandate in response to Government Executive’s questions. “We can provide [that] as of September 2021, the Bureau of Prisons had offered the COVID-19 vaccine to over 97% of the inmate population,” the spokesperson noted, adding in a follow-up response that “over 65% of the current inmate population has received the full vaccination series” and that “privately run facilities are not included in the full inoculations section on the coronavirus resource page.” The website page also lists the number of staff members by institution who are fully vaccinated. 

“In reference to staffing, the Bureau of Prisons uses a variety of networks and platforms to advertise and network with potential candidates,” said the spokesperson. “We have an updated and targeted approach towards branding and marketing in order to attract quality candidates to our organization. Recruitment efforts include, but are not limited to, Google Ad campaigns; Facebook, LinkedIn, and Indeed ads and job postings; recruitment videos on YouTube; billboard advertisements; and virtual recruitment events as well as recruitment through various professional organizations and the military.” BOP outlined in a post on Monday its upcoming hiring events and incentives. 

BOP Director Michael Carvajal issued a memo to all staff on September 29, obtained by Government Executive, about implementation of the mandate, following guidance from the Biden administration’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force. 

“BOP staff are our most valued resource,” the memo stated. “Meeting this vaccination requirement is vital to keeping our staff, families, co-workers and inmate population safe.” He reiterated the guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force that those who do not comply with the mandate and don’t have a legal exemption will be subject to discipline, which is “up to and including removal from federal service.” The Justice Department, which houses BOP, sent out a similar memo earlier this month. Then on September 30, BOP’s human resources office released a memo on exemptions.