MIDDLETON — Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger is implementing a vaccination requirement for all employees, as well as people working inside the jail for other entities and volunteers.
The order announced publicly on Tuesday will take effect Jan. 4.
The union representing correctional officers has already filed a prohibited practice complaint with the state’s Division of Labor Relations, alleging that Coppinger’s order was made unilaterally and that the sheriff failed to bargain in good faith — accusations Coppinger disputed.
The Essex County Correctional Officers Association, in its filing with the state, said the union met with the sheriff to discuss the situation and says it was told then that the department would not seek a vaccine mandate and instead rely on a testing/masking alternative.
“However on or about Nov. 17, the department reneged on its previous representation and informed the ECCOA that it intended to implement a new condition of employment requiring all members of the bargaining unit to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and maintain full vaccination status going forward,” the union’s attorney, Luke Liacos, wrote in the complaint.
“Nothing is further from the truth,” Coppinger said in an interview Tuesday.
Coppinger defended the order, which is modeled after one that Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed on state employees and which has survived court challenges. The sheriff also said he has consulted with health experts as well as the attorney general’s office.
“I’m just convinced I need to do this now,” Coppinger said. “I know it’s controversial. I’m trying to respect everyone’s rights.”
But he also said he has responsibility for protecting the health and safety of 1,100 prisoners and 800 or so staff and private contractors working for the department.
The move comes just weeks after a spike in COVID-19 cases at the facility among both prisoners and people working there either as employees (including correctional officers) or vendors, who work for private companies that provide services at the facility.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 36 cases among staff and a vendor, and 59 cases among inmates, Coppinger said. But last week those numbers had shot up to a total of 147 cases at the jail.
As of Tuesday, 72% of jail employees have provided proof of vaccination.
Coppinger said he believes that with the jail’s current practice of quarantining new prisoners for 14 days, the inescapable conclusion is that employees are the ones bringing the virus into the facility.
“Not maliciously, and not intentionally,” said the sheriff. “It’s just a fact of life. As local communities spike, we spike.”
Unless granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons, employees will have to show proof by Jan. 4, Coppinger said. If the employee has not made a good faith effort to get vaccinated by that date or obtain an exemption, they will face disciplinary proceedings, he said.
Coppinger said the vaccine “is the most effective tool we have to ensure the health and safety of all within our facilities, which is why this department will be moving ahead with a vaccination mandate.”
“We are a congregate care setting, and as such, we must make sure everyone has the vaccination to protect not only themselves and fellow staff, but to also protect every person that we provide care and custody for,” he said.
Coppinger said in a release that the delta variant has been shown to spread more quickly and cause more infections.
“The greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to get infected, and therefore transmit the virus,” he said.
The jail is still offering vaccinations on site to any prisoner or worker who wants one. Coppinger is also bringing in health experts to speak to inmates and employees and answer questions about the vaccine.
A message left for the Essex County Correctional Officers Association was not returned Thursday; efforts to reach Liacos, the union’s lawyer, were not successful.
Despite the coming legal challenge, Coppinger praised his employees for showing “great courage and commitment throughout this pandemic” and for their work keeping the facilities running.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis