More than 200 employees of FCI-McKean have filed suit against the federal government, demanding back pay for overtime and hazardous duty for prison conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suit, filed in U.S. Court of Federal Claims, was brought by 235 current and former prison employees, from all around the region. The employees allege that the Bureau of Prisons hasn’t provided them with sufficient equipment and measures to effectively eradicate COVID from the prison, and should be paying them hazard pay and differentials for dealing with COVID inside the facility.
As of Monday, there was no response filed by the federal defendants.
FCI-McKean is a medium security institution, with four main housing units inside the prison and a satellite prison camp with two housing units. There are more than 1,000 male inmates, according to the suit, “including violent offenders, drug dealers, rapists, murderers and gang members.”
The complaint alleged that the prison has had “an ongoing outbreak” of COVID-19 since October 2020. As of March 1, there had been more than 500 infections cumulative with inmates and staff.
Because of the nature of their jobs, staff cannot work remotely, the suit indicated. Their jobs require them to be in close proximity with other staff, and with inmates in indoor settings.
In October 2020, FCI-McKean set up unit C-A as a quarantine unit. The corrections officers assigned to the unit have close proximity and direct contact with the COVID-positive inmates on a regular basis. And then the officers move around the rest of the prison on other shifts, potentially exposing other staff and inmates to the virus.
The virus has not been contained to the quarantine unit, and FCI McKean failed to segregate positive inmates. The suit alleged, “positive inmates regularly get out of their cells to use showers, phones and computers.”
And the quarantine unit is not limited to inmates who are positive; FCI-McKean houses transferred inmates in the quarantine unit, too. Since January, about 200 inmates have been transferred in, and housed with the positive inmates, the suit alleged.
On each shift, employees are required to carry equipment that has been touched by others, such as radios, keys and handcuffs, and touch objects and surfaces regularly touched by other staff and inmates, such as door handles, security gates, cell doors, work stations, log books, inmate effects and possessions, restroom surfaces and more.
The suit noted that in addition to the regular exposure, some of the staff who were members of the Disturbance Control Team and Special Operations Response Team were required to travel to other areas during the pandemic.
In the fall of 2020, both teams were dispatched to FCI-Elkton in Ohio during its COVID outbreak in which numerous inmates were sent to hospitals and nine inmates died. In June 2020 and January 2021, both teams were sent to assist the National Guard in Washington, D.C., during protests, the suit stated.
Two members of the SORT team tested positive after returning from the January duty travel.
“FCI McKean has not been consistently quarantining or testing these plaintiffs when they return from duty travel, even though many have been exposed to COVID-19 during their travels or have tested positive upon their return,” the suit stated.
Staff are also at risk when transporting prisoners between institutions, processing new inmates and escorting new inmates inside of the prison. Staff are not informed whether an inmate is positive when transporting them, the suit alleged.
According to the suit, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has a schedule of differential pay, including a 25% differential when “employees perform work with or in close proximity to ‘virulent biologicals.’” Other differentials come into play regarding working in close proximity to a pathogen when safety devices do not eliminate the potential for personal injury.
The employees are asking for backpay, damages and attorneys’ fees.
The plaintiffs are represented by attorney Sara Faulman of McGillivary Steele Elkin LLP of Washington, D.C.