More than a dozen state prison employees have resigned and 11 others’ terminations are pending as a result of a state mandate that requires workers in congregate care facilities to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
As of Thursday, 2,234 of the 2,395 people working in the state prison system were vaccinated, according to New Mexico Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison.
Harrison wrote 139 employees have been granted exemptions, 11 are awaiting dismissal, 11 are on extended leave and 19 have resigned “due to the public health order.”Robert Trombley, public safety coordinator and longtime staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, said the requirement has put the union in a difficult position as it attempts to deal with fallout from the mandate and protect the rights of the approximately 900 correctional officers and support staff it represents.
“We have a governor’s mandate; we have to follow the mandate,” he said. “Unions don’t like mandates; they like to negotiate these types of things. But we are kind of stuck. A lot of our members are upset and confused to some extent. Some of them are drawing a line in the sand. And we have to look out for everyone’s interests.”
Trombley said the mandate has worsened staffing shortages in the prison system.
The union representative said the department has adjusted rosters, reducing the number of employees called for on any given shift.
“But,” he said, “the most fatal thing is they are not filling the mandatory posts they need to be safe, to avoid [paying] overtime.”
He continued, “The Department of Corrections has a large budget. The need to fill a mandatory post is worth more than the need to save a couple of bucks. Our members’ lives are worth it.”
Harrison, when asked to respond to the union leader’s comments Thursday, said in an email: “Public safety continues to be of upmost priority to the department. This includes appropriate staffing at each of our 11 prison facilities.”
According to the Legislative Finance Committee, state-run prisons were operating with a 27 percent vacancy rate and privately run prisons had a 25 percent vacancy rate in the fourth quarter of 2021.