Union officials are accusing the New Mexico Corrections Department of violating a collective bargaining agreement by refusing to share its plans for managing a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the state prison system.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, which represents about 900 prison guards and support staff, filed a complaint May 1 with the state Labor Relations Board, saying the department will not provide the union with information about how it plans to address worker exposure or about how it plans to contain a spread if more cases are confirmed.
No inmates have tested positive for the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, but four prison workers have confirmed cases.
The complaint alleges the Corrections Department also has failed to provide workers with protective gear approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The complaint says the agency initially claimed its plans for addressing the pandemic were confidential and later said union representatives could view the documents. But the agency has twice canceled appointments for reviewing records, and state officials have not responded to the union’s attempt to reschedule, according to the complaint.
The Corrections Department has detailed some provisions of its pandemic response plan in court documents related to an unsuccessful petition seeking a court order for prisoner releases.
The agency said certain prison units will be designated as quarantine units, the complaint says, but it “has refused to identify those or provide employees with advance notice that they would be working in such a post.”
Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said in a statement Thursday the agency’s legal team was reviewing the union’s complaint, “and it is always our goal to collaborate with our union partners. The safety of staff is our common mission.”
AFSCME Excutive Director Connie Derr said corrections officials have justified their secrecy about which employees would be assigned to work in “hot zones” — areas holding inmates who have tested positive for the virus — because they might not show up for work.
Employees just want to know what preventative measures are planned and have more information about personal protective equipment, such as goggles or face shields, they might receive to mitigate the risk of infection, she said.
Derr said she expressed her concerns in an April letter to Tafoya Lucero.
The secretary’s one-paragraph reply was long on assurances and short on details, she said.
The department has started holding health and safety meetings, and has invited union representatives, Derr said, “but there is no meat to it … not the meat and potatoes the rank and file needs to know.”
“Those men and women in the facilities are putting their lives on the line on a daily basis,” she said. “… They need to know what the expectations are and how they should be handling any COVID-positive inmates.”
As of Wednesday, the Corrections Department had tested 64 staff members for COVID-19, spokesman Eric Harrison said. Four of the test results were positive, 39 were negative and 29 were pending. Fourteen inmates also were tested; 12 came back negative and two were pending.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently announced a plan to test 100 percent of prison staff and 25 percent of inmates for the virus. More details about that effort would be coming soon, Harrison said.
Derr said union members also have questions about the testing.
“It’s totally unclear what the department’s plan is,” she said. It’s very murky, and there is no reason for it. There is a systematic way to be handling things, and the department has fallen short. They just are not transparent at all.”