The Lead

Pa. prison guards union sues to block Wolf’s vaccine policy

By: - September 13, 2021 12:23 pm

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The union representing 11,000 Pennsylvania prison guards and other corrections staff has filed a lawsuit to block Gov. Tom Wolf’s vaccine policy.

The policy, announced last month, required thousands of state employees working in congregate settings — such as state-run hospitals, homes for the disabled, and prisons — to get vaccinated or be tested for COVID-19 each week.

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But in a seven-page request filed in Commonwealth Court late Friday, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association argued that Wolf’s policy, which does not apply to prison inmates, “unnecessarily increases the risk to the health and safety” of union members.

It asks for the court to grant an injunction blocking the policy while the union challenges it through its collective bargaining agreement with the state. The union filed a grievance with the Wolf administration on Sept. 9.

The injunction “is necessary in order to maintain the equity between the members of [the union] and all other participants in the Commonwealth controlled congregate settings,” the filing adds, “and to further ensure the intent of the order itself; which is to protect the citizens of our Commonwealth from the  contraction and spread of the COVID-19 virus and its variants.”

Corrections staff have far lower vaccination rates than the state average, while inmates’ vaccination rates are far higher, according to state data.

About 67 percent of Pennsylvanians are fully vaccinated. In prisons, just 36 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, while 90 percent of inmates are.

Still, corrections staff vaccination rates have increased since Wolf announced the policy. On August 12, two days after Wolf announced the policy, just about 20 percent of staffers were fully vaccinated.

The suit was also filed after union President John Eckenrode wrote in a blog post that legal action challenging a vaccine policy would not likely be successful.

“The answer unfortunately is, we cannot file on behalf of the entire body. You cannot file a blanket injunction,” Eckenrode wrote in an Aug. 2 blog post that has since been removed from the union’s public website.

In a statement to the Capital-Star, Eckenrode later said that the message was old, and that upon further legal review, the union “believes it’s on excellent legal footing and intends to aggressively pursue a legal remedy for our members.”

Other public sector unions — including those representing prison staff — have indicated they would address concerns through bargaining, not legal action.

Prison guards sue, other unions bargain over Wolf’s vaccine policy for state workers

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.