CLEVELAND, Ohio — The union representing Cuyahoga County Jail corrections officers told elected leaders in a letter that its members deserve hazard pay and need more personal protective equipment because of the danger of the coronavirus.
Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Dan Leffler wrote Thursday to county Executive Armond Budish and Council President Dan Brady, saying that officers who work at the jail cannot avoid exposure to COVID-19 and that nobody anticipated the pandemic when they applied to work at the county or when the union’s contract was negotiated.
Leffler said the union wants to speed up negotiations on hazard pay during the pandemic.
“Strict social distancing is not a practical option for these officers,” Leffler wrote. “We must presume that each and every one of them will come into direct contact with the virus.”
The union’s letter comes as officials seek to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus in the county jail. Fifty-six inmates have tested positive, according to data the county released Friday, more than any other jail in the state. About 36 percent of the 1,000 inmates are affected because they were exposed or tested positive.
Leffler wrote that nine Sheriff’s Department employees, who staff the jail, have tested positive. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges worked early on during the pandemic to reduce the jail population, which is now at its lowest in years.
A spokeswoman for the county did not immediately respond to an email.
In addition to the hazard pay, Leffler’s letter asks that the county continue providing as much personal protective equipment to deputies and correctional officers. The union president also said county officials must reinforce the need to explain the steps they are taking to prevent the coronavirus spread, as he heard from corrections officers that their supervisors are not fully aware of the jail’s plans.
Finally, he asked that the county to “pressure” the MetroHealth System to be more transparent with the guidance it provides to the jail staff. A spokesman for MetroHealth declined comment.
The letter comes as Budish’s administration is considering 15-percent spending cuts across all agencies because of an anticipated drop in sales and property tax revenues associated with the coronavirus.
Cuts include 80-hour furloughs for all non-union employees to be spread out between now and February of next year. The county also has asked unions to consider unpaid time for its members. Layoffs are possible if an agreement cannot be reached, Chief of Staff Bill Mason previously said.
Leffler wrote Thursday that the union hoped that the federal government will provide money to help during the pandemic and that it will prevent the need for “unnecessary” furloughs or layoffs for all employees, including law enforcement.
He referenced the issues at the jail, which were addressed in a 2018 U.S. Marshals Service report that highlighted systemic issues with the treatment of inmates and a lack of training for staff. Eight inmates died that year, and the deaths and other alleged abuses are the focus of a criminal investigation.
Union members had complained about low staffing and crowding among inmates throughout the jail.
The county hired more corrections officers in 2019. Leffler wrote that the county cannot again neglect the jail.
“We must do our best to avoid unnecessary across the board cuts to staff, i.e. correctional officers, so to never again see the past problems of the jail,” he wrote. “This pandemic will end sooner than we think. And, it is your responsibility to have a fully staffed jail when that day comes.”