Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 @ 2:10 p.m. / Prison

'We Are Essential'; Union Representing 400 Pelican Bay Staff File Grievance Protesting Lack of COVID-19 Safeguards at California Prisons


Local SEIU 1000 members at Pelican Bay State Prison delivered this signed poster to the warden in an act of solidarity, district bargaining unit representative Laura Slavec said. Photo courtesy of Laura Slavec

Members of the union representing medical and administrative employees at Pelican Bay State Prison are delivering a poster to the warden Thursday reminding him that they and corrections officers are essential workers.

Local SEIU 1000 members felt the poster, signed by prison staff, would be a good way to build camaraderie in a challenging time and an environment that’s already difficult, said Laura Slavec, a registered dental assistant and a district bargaining representative for the union.

“A lot of the medical side of the house doesn’t qualify for some of the aid that were put in place (by) the governor,” Slaved told the Wild Rivers Outpost, giving as an example emergency family relief enabling employees to stay home with their children due to a lack of daycare providers. “Because we’re essential we don’t fall under those parameters. We’re dealing with inmate patient care. During this time, it’s just been extremely stressful.”

SEIU 1000 is California’s largest public sector union, representing staff at the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Caltrans and other state agencies. The union represents about 400 Pelican Bay employees including the prison’s nurses, x-ray and laboratory technicians, dental employees as well as its office and administrative staff.

According to Slavec, SEIU 1000 filed a statewide grievance due to the lack of safeguards at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities in response to COVID-19. One outcome, union representatives are arguing for is faster turnaround time for COVID-19 test results, she said.

This health and safety grievance was filed July 28 on behalf of CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services staff, according to SEIU 1000’s website.

“CDCR (and) CCHCS violated our contract by requiring employees to work where an immediate and recognizable threat exists to their health and safety,” the union states. “The department also continues to expose our members to an unsafe work environment, resulting in COVID-19 outbreaks, by continuing to allow inmate movement and not fully enforcing all health and safety guidelines.”

The grievance is in response to COVID-19 outbreaks at four CDCR facilities including San Quentin State Prison, Slavec said.

On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that nearly 2,200 inmates at San Quentin contracted the novel coronavirus beginning in early June. The outbreak began with a May inmate transfer from the California Institution for Men at Chino, which had hundreds of infected inmates, the Chronicle reported.

There are currently 173 active COVID-19 cases among San Quentin inmates, according to CDCR’s patient tracker tool. There are a total of 1,327 active in-custody cases and 51 deaths systemwide.

“For our little town, it’d be devastating if we were to get hit with a number like that because of our small hospital — we don’t have resources like in bigger cities,” Slavec said, pointing out there are still zero COVID-19 cases among Pelican Bay inmates. “It’s very crucial that we safeguard as much as possible. But the reality of it is we’re the ones that are going to most likely bring it to an inmate.”

Early in the pandemic, medical staff had been providing normal inmate patient care, Slavec said. Pelican Bay suspended routine dental care. Slavec, who has been a registered dental assistant at the prison for eight years and a district bargaining representative for six, said she only sees urgent and emergency cases.

Medical staff only deal with urgent and emergency inmate cases currently, she said.

Slavec said that she expects to find out Thursday if she and her colleagues will return to providing routine dental care in addition to emergency care.

When they arrive at work, staff have their temperature taken and are asked if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, Slavec said. But, though they wear masks, social distancing isn’t always possible, she said. Slavec said the people she knows of who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus have been asymptomatic.

And then there’s testing. Slavec said she received a COVID-19 test on July 27 and has yet to find out what her results are. This slow turnaround time is another reason for SEIU 1000’s grievance, she said.

“We should have a quicker turnaround than 10 or 12 days,” Slavec said. “That’s a concern for everybody that’s out there, that it’s taking a long time to get our tests back.”

There have been 26 cumulative confirmed cases among Pelican Bay staff, according to CDCR’s COVID-19 employee status web page. Of those 26 cases, 18 have returned to work, according to the web page.

Systemwide there are 1,033 active staff cases.

In Del Norte County, no new confirmed positive COVID-19 cases were reported to the Public Health Branch as of Wednesday, according to the county’s information hub. There are currently two active cases and 88 inactive cases.


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