Prisoners stand outside of the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo., in February.

Prisoners stand outside of the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo., in February. David Zalubowski / AP

Union Files National Grievance Over Alleged Safety Violations at Federal Prisons During Coronavirus Pandemic

Forced leave, lack of protective gear and privacy breaches are among the allegations. 

The union representing federal prison employees filed a national grievance against the Justice Department on April 16 alleging ongoing violations of workplace safety guidelines and other rules during the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

The Council of Prison Locals C-33, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, filed a grievance within the Justice Department on behalf of the 122 Federal Bureau of Prisons institutions nationwide. The union said BOP has violated the master collective bargaining agreement, several unfair labor and equal employment regulations, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It is seeking “all relief available” as a result.

“Starting on or about March 13 and continuing, the agency unilaterally implemented several substantive changes in conditions of employment without bargaining or consulting with the Council of Prison Locals 33, which directly impacted bargaining unit employees,” said the grievance. “As a result...bargaining unit members nationwide were forced to use their own accrued leave, denied much needed [personal protective equipment], [and were] unnecessarily exposed to a deadly virus that caused severe illness up to death.” March 13 was when the White House declared a national emergency for the pandemic. 

As of Monday afternoon, 495 inmates and 309 staff had tested positive for coronavirus, and 155 inmates and 29 staff had recovered. Twenty-two inmates and one staff member had died, according to the agency’s online tracker.

The union alleged more specifically that the agency did the following:

  • Implemented a coronavirus screening tool and other changes without consulting the union; 
  • Forced staff to go home or on forced leave if they did not pass the screening test (that changed many times) and wasn’t always contingent on coronavirus-related issues; 
  • Failed to properly secure employees’ medical information obtained from the screening test as required by HIPAA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; 
  • Continued to accept inmates from outside facilities, U.S. marshals and self-surrenders without quarantining them beforehand, and moved inmates from high risk areas (such as New York) to low risk areas (such as Pennsylvania) without proper screening or personal protective gear;
  • Waited until March 31 to initiate a modified lockdown;
  • Ordered staff who have been exposed to the coronavirus to come back to work without a 14-day quarantine, as recommended by the CDC; 
  • Failed to issue proper personal protective gear to staff; and, 
  • Failed to provide masks to everyone despite mandating that staff are fit-tested for N95 masks.  

Submitting a national grievance is  “not a super frequent thing” because “we try [to] reserve it for when it is a national issue,” Brandy Moore, national union secretary treasurer, told Government Executive on Monday.     

“In our master agreement it does say that if it’s an ‘emergency’ they have the right to just immediately implement and then kind of deal with it after the fact,” said Moore, in reference to the union contract violations. “But our take on it typically is [for] anything like this that goes on for more than a day or two or three...they should sit down at the table and try and negotiate with us.”

Since January, BOP has issued guidance and modified operations in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Those steps include: launching an online screening tool; allowing telework where possible (although that’s not possible for the majority of staff); suspending social and other visits with few exceptions; increasing home confinements and limiting inmate transfers.

On April 1, BOP implemented what union officials called a “modified lockdown” to limit inmate movement within the facilities, which the agency said last week it’s extending until May 18. Also, BOP Director Michael Carvajal recently started offering weekly video updates on the agency’s response to the pandemic. 

Moore said the union feels there is not enough guidance and wardens are not getting enough direction from the central management. In reference to the six BOP guidance documents released throughout the pandemic, she said: “To us it feels more like it’s for the public, for them not to be criticized because they’re not doing anything...We really don’t feel like they’re actually taking the actions that they’re putting out in these memos.” 

When asked about the national grievance the agency declined to comment on pending litigation.