Union officials want more protections for employees working in two of the state’s juvenile detention centers where they say 18 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Juvenile detention centers, notably in Bridgeport and Hartford, have become a flash point for the spread of COVID-19,” officials from AFSCME Council 4, representing thousands of Judicial Branch employees, said in a statement last week, shortly after meeting with agency administrators.
At least one new hire wound up on a ventilator after being exposed to the virus during a training session at the Bridgeport detention center, said Ron Nelson, president of AFSCME Local 749, which represents various Judicial Branch employees, including detention center officers. Another employee at the same detention center is facing a second bout of COVID-19, he said.
As of Thursday, 41 Judicial Branch employees have tested positive for COVID-19 with one probation officer from Stamford dying with the disease. Eighteen of the employees who tested positive work at either the Hartford or Bridgeport juvenile detention centers, agency officials said.
“Have they made improvements since day one? Yes,” Nelson said. “But they need to have the right equipment to protect our members.”
Agency officials, however, contend that detention officers, medical staff and others working in the buildings have been issued the proper personal protective equipment based on their duties.
“We were never at a shortage of PPE,” said Gary Roberge, executive director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division, which oversees juvenile detention. “We had enough in accordance with state Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.”
PPE is distributed to staff according to job duties, said Catherine Foley Geib, director of the department’s Residential Services. “We are issuing N95 respirators (masks), according to guidance from the CDC,” Foley Geib said. “They are for health care workers who are doing procedures on those who are sick. We have a medical director who has been working closely with the DPH.”
Seven juveniles at the Hartford detention center who tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered and there are no sick youth now at either facility, Foley Geib said.
Everyone else has been issued paper, surgical or is using cloth masks that they have brought from home, she said. Temperatures are being taken daily and any medical or detention staff who are dealing with juveniles in isolation are given N95 masks, she said.
The Judicial Branch oversees the detention of juveniles who have been arrested and have cases pending and those who require residential placement after their case has been adjudicated.
There are 28 juveniles in the Bridgeport detention center and 16 in the Hartford juvenile detention center, officials said. The facilities are staffed 24 hours a day with medical personnel, detention officers, maintenance workers and other employees who provide programming and educational opportunities for those being held.
Union leaders met with Roberge and Foley Geib for 90 minutes on Wednesday. Roberge and Foley Geib said they left the meeting feeling the concerns of the unions were addressed. They said they were surprised when the unions issued a statement afterward, calling for more to be done to protect staff and juveniles at the detention centers.
“We’re in a better place than we were on March 15,” Nelson said. “But we’re still not comfortable with everything that was put in place.”