A Message To All Corrections Bargaining Unit Members:

Subject line: Update re Corrections and COVID-19 protections

To All Corrections Bargaining Unit Members:

We know that many of you are concerned about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have heard you and have raised your concerns with the government. By law, it is the employer’s obligation to keep workers safe during this crisis, and it is our duty as workers to enforce the measures they put in place.

Due to the hard work and diligence of Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU, and Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer, a conference call was arranged for March 24. Your MERCs and Provincial Health and Safety (PJOHSC) teams had a conference call with Deborah Richardson, Deputy Solicitor General for Correctional Services; Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Director of Communicable Disease Control and Associate Medical Officer of Health with Toronto Public Health; and Dr. Gary Gaber, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control, among others.

OPSEU made nine requests of the ministry. We have made significant progress. Here are our requests, together with the ministry’s commitments.

1.       End all inmate transfers.

All non-essential transfers should have ceased per the ministry’s directive sent last week.

Transfers will continue for the following three reasons only:

i.        to reduce overcrowding (e.g., transfers back to Corrections Canada)

ii.      to comply with court orders (it’s anticipated these numbers will continue to decrease as we work with the Ministry of the Attorney General to do more virtual courts)

iii.    to accommodate urgent health and/or safety issues (e.g., acute psychiatric assessment)

The ministry commits to sharing daily updates and following up on any concerns we identify.

2.       Implement active screening methods for all workers.

The ministry is open to starting temperature checks at each institution and is reviewing how this can be implemented. It will work with OPSEU through the MERCs on solutions, strategies and next steps.

The ministry will prioritize active screening for those employees who are known to have travelled within the past 14 days and ensure they self-isolate for 14 days. OPSEU, the MERC and the PJOHSCs continue to advocate for fulsome and active screening.

3.       More communications that workers will get paid if they are sent home to self-isolate

When workers are self-isolating, the ministry says the exact pay treatment depends on the individual circumstance. But it adds that when a staff member is required to self-isolate, based on the identified risk factors, they will not go without pay for their 14-day self-isolation period. For example, short-term sick pay or leave with pay are mechanisms that can be used. The MERCs and PJOHSCs have flagged extenuating circumstances in terms of pay (e.g., fixed-term employees) with the employer and continue to lobby for answers.

The ministry also commits to sharing that same information with the MERCs to ensure transparency and consistency of messaging.

Further, the ministry has implemented methods of daily communication with youth centre administrators and probation managers.

4.       Allow probation and parole officers and youth probation officers to work from home.

The ministry is evaluating community services delivery and assessing telephone reporting and reduced staffing. It’s also evaluating the requirements to deliver public safety services with justice partners, such as Institutional Services, courts, the Crown and police.

The ministry notes it has reduced staffing levels to 50 per cent in adult probation and parole offices, with each PPO having their individual office space and OAGs able to ensure they sit an appropriate distance away from each other.

The ministry says it will continue to move towards staff working fully from home. As such, they have begun distributing ministry-issued cell phones and are working to secure more laptops, VPNs, etc.

Youth probation officers and staff are working remotely where possible, with some offices completely closed and operating remotely, and others partially closed, to ensure lower numbers of staff in the offices. The ministry will evaluate this model daily and make changes as needed.

In both sectors, where possible, appointments for low/medium-risk clients have been postponed, or reporting is being done by phone. High-risk clients, including intensive supervision offenders, continue to be seen in our offices, which offer secure interview rooms and counters with a barrier between staff and clients.

The ministry has scheduled additional cleaning for these public spaces and has put in place self-assessment protocols for clients and staff.

5.       Allow support staff and social workers working in correctional facilities to stay work from home.

The ministry points out that social workers and other staff, such as recreational and programming staff, provide essential inmate services. However, they say there may be opportunities to provide greater social distancing and limit working in confined spaces by having these staff stagger their hours to include evenings and weekends.

The ministry also wants to discuss potential alternate approaches for the various groups of staff (e.g., the OAG admin group) with the MERCs. Local workplaces have been encouraged to negotiate alternatives to working at the institutions.

6.       Implement and activate local pandemic plans.

Every institution has a multi-tier pandemic plan. The ministry has moved through the prevention tier and is now working in the response and containment tier. They commit to sharing the pandemic plan implementation for each institution with the MERCs. Once the institutional plans are received, they will be shared locally.

The ministry says the sequencing of the plan is critical to staff safety, as it uses the right strategies at the right times to ensure the necessary supplies and equipment are available if there is an outbreak. Using limited resources too early may undermine the pandemic plan to manage an outbreak.

The final tier of the pandemic plan contains measures for an infectious disease spread in an institution. The measures are tailored to, and should only to be implemented when, there has been spread within the institution. Public health officials would be involved to confirm an outbreak.

The ministry will continue to work with the Ministry of Health to determine if any of those measures should be implemented. 

7.       Enact a plan for social distancing in institutions.

Senior management will work with local OPSEU representatives at each institution to develop approaches to maximizing social distancing and minimizing unnecessary and prolonged work in confined spaces.

The ministry will ensure each institution has a full-time book off union position to support this on the ground in terms of planning and implementation. Local workplaces have been encouraged to negotiate alternative plans to overcome social distance rules in institutions.  

Youth centre administrators will continue to work with bargaining unit locals in exploring options for social distancing in youth facilities.  

8.       Release inmates who have already served two-thirds of their sentence.

Regulations were approved last week that permit the ministry to review and, where appropriate, release individuals on temporary absence passes (TAPs) who are nearing the end of their sentence (e.g., 30 days or less remaining). The ministry expects to start releasing inmates as early as later this week or early next.

Once those individuals have been reviewed, the ministry will assess inmates as they meet that 30-day threshold and identify other inmates who may be appropriate for consideration.

9.       Allow staff who need to care for infants or other vulnerable people to go home.

The ministry is willing to work with OPSEU to better define the individual circumstances of such an exemption. The ministry is also working to make sure adult institutional services staff can access emergency child care at no cost to staff.

You can be certain that OPSEU and your MERCs are keeping a vigilant eye on this quickly evolving situation through constant communication with union representatives on the ground. We are conveying concerns that arise, and suggestions to resolve them, immediately to institutional and ministry senior management. Again, local workplaces have been encouraged to negotiate alternatives to working at the institutions.

The health, safety and general welfare of corrections staff, as well as their families and dependants, is, was and always will be our first priority and overriding concern.

Chris Jackel, co-chair,  SolGen-COR MERC

Peter Harding, co-chair, MCCSS-YJ MERC