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AFSCME AFL-CIO  - COUNCIL 2
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Council 2 Workers Step Up During COVID-19 Pandemic

Council 2 Workers Step Up During COVID-19 Pandemic

by Council 2 Staff on June 17, 2020

Spokane County Corrections employees lead the way

Spokane – Council 2 workers across Washington and Idaho are keeping local government moving during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether working from home or adopting new safety precautions, workers are putting community first during this trying time. One important example are employees at the Spokane County Jail, who have successfully balanced their work with public health recommendations and personal safety.

As of early May, not a single employee or inmate at the Spokane County Jail had been diagnosed with COVID-19 – a testament to the proactive and collaborative leadership of its employees and Council 2.

After social distancing requirements were announced, workers at the jail discussed them with management – knowing it was a tough task to enforce six foot distancing, among other requirements, in an overcrowded jail. The jail houses inmates waiting for trial in Spokane County, federal inmates awaiting trial, and some state inmates, and also serves as a transfer hub, meaning there were about 1000 inmates at the time of the initial statewide COVID-19 outbreak.

Fred Bozanich, Chief Shop Steward at Local 492 and Council 2 Executive Board Member, said that their efforts have been successful because employees were collaborative and forward thinking, working together not just with management, but “with prosecutors, defenders, and judges” to reduce the jail population down to about 600 inmates, and implementing strong safety measures to protect employees and inmates both.

While it took time to work out a system that addressed incoming flow and who could be moved from jail, Council 2 prioritized safety of the staff, with special consideration for employees and workers who are considered high risk for COVID-19. 

And, when Spokane County Commissioners opposed necessary safety precautions, along with practical steps to keep employees and inmates safe, Council 2 contacted other elected officials including the Governor, Attorney General, and members of Congress, leading the County Commissioners to reverse their stance.

Employees entering the jail go through a screening process, where screeners, who wear goggles, N95 masks, gloves, and other forms of PPE, use no contact thermometers and ask questions recommended by the CDC to determine potential symptoms. Because of this effort, no employees or inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

And while management initially pushed for greatly reduced staffing, Council 2 worked to develop a plan that would ensure full staffing to begin and phased levels of decreased staffing if needed. Because of the safety precautions employees have taken, there has been no need to move beyond the first phase – full staffing.

Staff is still showing up in force, with no noticeable decline in attendance, due to the workers strong commitment to their job and because of a trust in the safety process that was developed with their input – a model for other departments facing similar situations.

COVID-19 has introduced new challenges, such as keeping communication strong when roll calls are impractical, as well as inmate specific issues like maintaining hygiene, reassuring inmates that their health will be protected, and improving engagement even as visitation is not allowed.

While some other correctional facilities have faced serious morale issues, Spokane has succeeded in actually improving morale for inmates at the facility, Bozanich said. With fewer inmates, Council 2 members have successfully kept inmates from getting sick, implementing isolation precautions for new inmates, and also running the facility “like it was designed” with a lower inmate population – giving remaining inmates greater freedom within the jail.

Bozanich says that jail employees have risen to the challenge, “The commitment by all the union members – including our sergeants and lieutenants – everyone has really worked for everybody’s safety, and done the best they can to protect one another and the people that we care for.”

The jail will likely take lessons from the COVID-19 outbreak. At a minimum, better hygiene and requirements for inmates, derived from experience as employees have doubled their sanitation efforts and are using better materials and more effective cleaning solvents. Additionally, the jail will be better prepared for future outbreaks or crises, with procedures in place and a clear understanding that staff health must be prioritized in tandem with inmates.

Bozanich also thanked Council 2 for helping ensure safe and effective procedures, “Without Council 2’s support and insight, I don’t know that we would have been as successful as we were in achieving the benefits we were able to secure for everyone in uniform.”

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