As the coronavirus pandemic escalates throughout the U.S., some workers are complaining that the personal safety measures their employers are taking are inadequate, heightening the risk that they could contract the virus and spread it to their families and others.
Recent reports out of the Arizona detention and prison systems, for instance, indicate that lax safety measures could turn the state’s correctional facilities into coronavirus breeding grounds that might eventually infect the general population.
On March 28, a lieutenant with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) submitted a whistleblower complaint with state officials claiming that supervisors have prohibited corrections officers from wearing face masks and other protective gear inside state prisons.
Lt. Mark Hasz mailed the complaint to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services director Cara Christ. According to ABC 15 Arizona, Lt. Hasz says that to ADCRR director David Shinn told staff at a meeting inside Lewis Prison that corrections officers weren’t allowed to wear their own personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The reasoning is ridiculous”
He says the social distancing rules that are being enforced in most other places are impossible to implement within the prison system, where prisoners live within close proximity to one another. He warns that once the coronavirus enters a prison, it will quickly spread throughout the facility.
The letter explains that corrections officers throughout the state, numbering in the thousands, come in close contact with 40,000 inmates daily. When their shift is over, they return home to their families and communities.
Lt. Hasz says Director Shinn prohibited face masks because he believed they would scare the inmates.
“The reasoning is ridiculous and Director Shinn’s decision is putting the health of the staff, inmates and the general public at increased risk,” Lt. Hasz says in the complaint.
The letter also states that ADCRR has face masks in storage but it has refused to issue them to staff. “Staff have no confidence that ADCRR takes their health and safety seriously,” Lt. Hasz writes, calling the director’s actions “shortsighted and dangerous.”
Other whistleblowers speak out
Just days before Lt. Hasz sent his whistleblower complaint, another officer who works in Phoenix’s Alhambra intake unit told ABC15 that staff were forced to work in close contact with quarantined inmates for hours.
He said that 25 detainees were held in a single room for two weeks before transitioning from jail to prisons.
“(The room) is 40 by 23 feet. They’re all packed. It’s uncomfortable for them, and it’s uncomfortable for us,” the officer told ABC 15. He wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We have to work there. We have to feed them. We cannot wear masks … We’re around them the whole eight hours. Some officers are working 16 hours.”
“I just see everyone coughing, and you know a bunch of inmates in there. Just coughing,” the officer continued. “Some of them stated they were sick, and you know they had symptoms of the flu. They weren’t feeling good, and they were packed back there.”
ABC15 reported that Lt. Hasz’s whistleblower complaint stunned some state representatives and prompted them to send a letter to prison officials demanding to know how the department planned to deal with a coronavirus outbreak.
Employment law and workplace retaliation
Retaliation may occur in the workplace when an employer punishes an employee for an action that is permitted by law, but which the employer wants to discourage. For example, an employer may retaliate against an employee who makes harassment or discrimination complaints, who reports fraud or other wrongdoing in the workplace, or who participates in an investigation within the workplace. Some employers also retaliate against employees who report workplace injuries to state or federal authorities.
Lawyers in our Fraud section handle complaints involving employment law, including retaliation. For more information or to discuss a possible claim, contact Larry Golston, Leon Hampton or Lauren Miles in this section.
Additional source: ABC News