NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City’s mayor vowed to stop requiring city corrections officers to work for 24 hours straight, after a lawsuit by their unions said enforcing the policy as the coronavirus spreads through jails could be a “death sentence.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Friday that the shifts were a “dumb managerial mistake” he did not accept.
“There never should have been 24-hour shifts. It really was just a horrible practice,” de Blasio said. “Our officers, their supervisors, are going through so much. They’ve got a tough job already.”
Nevertheless, after the mayor spoke, the city’s lawyers on urged a state judge to reject the union’s demand for shorter shifts, while acknowledging the “extreme staffing shortages” that prompted the extra-long shifts.
The mayor spoke one day after the unions said in a lawsuit filed in a state court in Queens County that the city was putting the lives of about 10,000 corrections officers at risk by requiring many to work three straight eight-hour shifts.
While the shifts include overtime, the unions said the pandemic has transformed Rikers Island and other city jails into a “cesspool of illness,” effectively making triple shifts an “order” to get sick, infect loved ones and possibly die.
The unions - the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Correction Captains’ Association and Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association - estimated that 587 staff members and 323 inmates had been infected by the coronavirus, with 10 deaths.
They asked that shifts be capped at 16 hours.
In response, city lawyers said the Department of Corrections has begun a plan to “safely end” triple shifts while ensuring the safety of staff and inmates, and while following the advice of medical and scientific experts.
“Plaintiffs here would have this court substitute the judgment of the nation’s and the city’s own experts for that of the unions - an invitation that the court should decline,” the city said.
Steven Isaacs, a lawyer representing the unions, rejected that argument in an interview, saying triple shifts threaten everyone’s health and safety.
“They have asked us to dismiss the action while their boss says 24-hour shifts are a safety risk and reflect bad management,” Isaacs said. “The mayor and the Department of Corrections need to figure out which way they’re going.”
De Blasio defended another policy challenged in the lawsuit, a requirement that officers who contracted the coronavirus return to work after their symptoms disappear, but without first testing negative for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.
“The test is not the only way to know if someone’s well enough to come back,” the mayor said.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis