1,600 NJ correctional officers seek exemption from vaccine rule
TRENTON – Roughly 4,000 employees at the Department of Corrections weren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 by a Wednesday deadline, but it will take a while to sort out if around half will win sought exemptions – and how many lose their jobs.
Correctional officers who didn’t submit vaccination or request exemptions began to be issued notices Thursday, telling them to comply within three days or be terminated. But those notices were retracted because the list hadn’t been updated to reflect the late rush of exemption requests, said William Sullivan, president of PBA Local 105, which represents officers in the state prisons.
“They’re telling me they’ll have the numbers on Monday or Tuesday,” Sullivan said. “They’re going to take tomorrow and the weekend, and then they’re going to hand out the notices on Monday.”
“It’s still on. They’re still going to get their notices. There’s nothing changed,” he said. “It’s just they get two extra days, three extra days to think about it.”
There had been about 250 notices issued at South Woods State Prison and 130 at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, Sullivan said. He estimated that around 1,200 people got notices and said another 1,600 officers have filed for exemptions.
“Definitely 1,600 exemptions were filed as of yesterday,” Sullivan said Thursday. “I don’t know how many medical. I know it was like 1,600 religious. I don’t think the medical is going to be as many because we didn’t have a lot of people that had doctors that are willing to sign their name to exemptions.
“We had doctors tell officers, ‘We agree you have this heart condition or this or this, but I’m sorry I can’t give you an exemption,’” he said. “I guess they’re worried about the liability, you know? If I give you an exemption and you get COVID, then your family is going to sue me for giving it to you.”
Sullivan said it will be interesting to see how the Department of Corrections assesses requests for exemptions. He said he had been told the Essex and Monmouth county jails accepted all exemption requests.
“I mean, I don’t how you really prove somebody does or doesn’t have a devout religious belief,” Sullivan said.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez said there is presently a staff vaccination rate of around 42.8%, out of close to 7,300 civilian and uniformed staff.
The compliance deadline for the first or second dose of a two-part vaccine series or single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson was Wednesday. March 30 is the deadline for a second dose or booster. People who aren’t yet eligible for a booster must get one within three weeks of becoming so.
Sullivan said there isn’t a cap on how long it will take to review appeals. People who are denied can appeal – first to the DOC’s ethics department, then if needed to the Civil Service Commission.
“The whole time you’re going through the appeal process, because we have due process contractual rights, they can’t put you out of pay status when you have pending appeals,” he said. “So, there’s going to be some period of time for anybody who filed an exemption to continue to work, unless they expedite the hearings.”
Employees who aren’t vaccinated within three days of getting a noncompliance letter and who don’t have an approved exemption will be suspended without pay, pending the completion of termination proceedings.
But, it will be a while until the prison system would have to make adjustments to any reduction in staffing levels.
“DOC leadership is constantly reviewing staffing plans to ensure the safety and security of its facilities and is poised to implement strategies to maintain the integrity of its operations including consolidation of units/facilities as needed and/or securing additional resources with the support of the Governor’s Office,” Velez said.