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NY prison union skeptical of COVID vaccine mandate

Gowanda Correctional Facility surrounded by its metal fencing
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A mandate for all state workers to be vaccinated would impact prisons, like Gowanda Correctional Facility.

The announcement that Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all state workers by Labor Day did not land well with some of the labor union’s representing public employees. The labor organization representing correction officers in the state prison system corrections says it was not consulted by the governor prior to his declaration.

In making the announcement, Cuomo said there is no doubt that the highly-contagious Delta Variant of the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus has changed the situation across New York State.

“Today we have 2,200 cases,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “One month ago, basically, we had 275 cases. So the increase in the numbers is real. It's not an overstatement, it's not a fabrication.”

The governor noted that while 75% of New York adults have been vaccinated, that still leaves 3.5 million state residents vulnerable to infection. In response, Cuomo said he will require all employees of New York State to get vaccinated by Labor Day weekend or be subject to weekly testing.

The announcement wasn’t well received by some of those workers.

“People are very upset, to put it politely,” said John Roberts, an executive with NYSCOPBA, the union that represents state corrections officers, more than 5,000 of whom work in the North Country.

When he announced the new policy, Cuomo stated his office was working with unions to implement the change “quickly and fairly.”

Roberts disputed that claim and said the prison workers’ union found out via Twitter.

“Yesterday we get a tweet saying he was working with the unions, which was 100% inaccurate. Very concerning to say the least.”

Roberts said the union was subsequently contacted by the governor’s office, but they remain opposed to a vaccine mandate from Albany.

COVID-19 outbreaks have been widespread throughout the state prison system. The state Department of Corrections said all inmates have been offered the vaccine, with 46% getting the shot. It is not clear exactly how many corrections officers have been immunized, although the state reported more than 8,000 have voluntarily been vaccinated while at work.

Roberts said officers want to make that choice themselves.

“I believe, for the most part, everybody’s stance is it should be everyone’s individual choice whether they get vaccinated or not," he said. "I, myself, have been vaccinated, but that was my choice. It wasn’t the Department of Corrections’ choice for me to get it.”

New York State is not alone in moving to mandate vaccines. The State of California and the City of New York were first. Meanwhile, President Biden announced a similar policy for the federal workforce.

The Department of Veterans Affairs already had that requirement in place for its thousands of medical workers. The U.S. military requires servicemembers get vaccinated for 17 different diseases, but COVID-19 is currently not one of them. Since the vaccines are still under emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, those vaccines remain voluntary for troops.

The Pentagon said approximately 70% of servicemembers have been vaccinated. Senior military leaders have said that will likely change when full regulatory approval is granted.

Ryan Finnerty is producer on Hawaii Public Radio's local public affairs talk show The Conversation where he reports on local and state politics, business, economics, science, and the environment. Before coming to Hawaii Public Radio, Ryan was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Schofield Barraks on Oahu. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in economics.