The city has filed suit against a correction officer union for allegedly allowing or even encouraging guards at Rikers Island and other city jails to not show up for work, new court papers show.
The city is asking a judge to force the Correction Officers Benevolent Association to intervene and help stop correction officers from skipping out on shifts — whether by taking sick days or going AWOL — which has been making things worse at the troubled jailhouse, according to a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit from Monday.
COBA and its leaders are “clearly aware of this campaign of mass absenteeism, and are either unable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations under the law and contract to mitigate it, putting the population of Rikers Island — employees and detainees alike — in greater danger,” the suit charges.
The lawsuit comes less than a week after over 20 percent of Rikers COs took a sick day Tuesday.
The city claims that the officers are “engaged in a campaign of mass absenteeism that constitutes an illegal strike and/or work slowdown,” the court papers say.
Many officers have been going AWOL — meaning they skip a work shift without permission — over which the Department of Correction began suspending COs for 30 days, the court papers say.
The suit says that AWOLs have been on the rise with a “staggering 198% increase from 2020 and a 215% increase from 2019.” There were allegedly an average of 2,304 AWOLs in the first 8 months of 2021, with an average of 773 in 2020 and 645 in 2019, the court papers say.
COBA has tended “to justify” this by shifting blame to the working conditions at the DOC, despite the fact that AWOLs go against collective bargaining principles, the filing claims.
Further, COBA could improve things if they helped change policy to appease the COs who are “absenting themselves form work as leverage for policy change,” the suit says.
“At this critical juncture, the unlawful campaign of mass absenteeism by correction officers is one of the primary contributors to an emergency circumstance in which the health and well being of plaintiffs employees, as well as the detainees in DOC facilities, are at risk,” the suit claims.
In fact, 11 inmates at Rikers have died this year, with a 42-year-old man passing away of “natural” causes inside a jail infirmary on Sunday, according to jail officials.
Conditions are worsening at Rikers because officers aren’t doing their jobs, the suit says, citing inmates’ lawyers. For instance, inmates aren’t receiving their meds, meals are getting “significantly delayed or not provided altogether,” and emergencies at the jail are being ignored, the court documents allege.
This is an “abdication of correction officers’ basic responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the individuals housed in their facilities, other DOC employees and the visiting public,” the suit claims.
The city has been trying to mitigate the growing problems at Rikers, but between guards not showing up to work and COBA not intervening, the city has been forced to ask a judge to step in, the court papers claim.
COBA is allowing this to happen “in an apparent attempt to leverage this emergency to coerce the city into meeting defendants’ demands,” the suit says.
Further, COBA has a “decades-long history” of strikes and disruptions by jail guards, the suit claims citing four examples.
The city is seeking $1 million per day for any DOC slow-downs, strikes, mass absenteeism that COBA “causes, instigates, encourages or condones,” the court papers say.
Eric Eichenholtz, the Chief of the Labor & Employment Division of the City Law Department said, “While the majority of DOC workers are coming into work to address the challenges at Rikers, COBA has been actively encouraging or condoning staffers to abandon their fellow officers and put everyone at greater risk.
“This lawsuit seeks to compel COBA to meet its legal obligation to stop workers from failing to show up to work as scheduled.”
DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi admitted earlier this month that Rikers has “serious problems” after cellphone footage showed inmates attacking each other and partying inside a jail cell.
Last week Schiraldi asked to postpone reforms meant to make the jailhouse more friendly for inmates claiming there isn’t enough space to safely implement them as part of Rikers has already closed down as part of a push to permanently close the facility in 2027.
COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio over the lawsuit — which he claims is “frivolous and fact less.”
“This meritless suit falsely accuses COBA of encouraging our members to commit a job action and to not come to work,” Boscio said in a statement. “We call on all labor unions in New York and anyone who supports essential workers, to tell Mayor de Blasio to stop union busting and to start making our jails safer today for everyone.”
City Hall did not immediately return a request for comment.
In July, COBA sued the DOC for alleged hostile and unsafe work environment for officers. That case is still pending.
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