HARRISBURG - The union that represents about 10,000 guards in Pennsylvania's state prisons told Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday it plans legal action to stop his effort to force them to get COVID-19 vaccines over the next month.
The president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association sent a letter to the Democratic governor two days after Wolf ordered the guards and some other state workers to get fully vaccinated by Sept. 7 or face weekly testing.
Union president John Eckenrode told Wolf his policy announcement was "a slap in the face — and frankly, way too late because thousands of our members already have been infected, due to your inaction."
"This is the latest episode of what has been a woefully inconsistent vaccination/testing/masking policy by this administration in our state prisons," Eckenrode wrote, adding the union "has instructed legal counsel to challenge this latest proposed policy change."
Wolf press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said Thursday the initiative was designed to protect the guards, their families and the people they work among.
"The union exists to protect and support the employees it represents, so the corrections union’s opposition to this initiative to stop the spread of COVID-19 is extremely disappointing," Kensinger said.
The Corrections Department’s website indicates about 4,800 of the prison system’s more than 12,000 staff have been infected by the coronavirus, and the union says nearly 3,700 of its members have caught COVID-19. The department says about 3,600 correctional employees are currently fully vaccinated.
Eckenrode told Wolf that the plan for testing won’t make people safer because it does not extend to inmates’ family members, contractors, vendors and volunteers.
"As for masking, our members are required to wear them, but inmates are not," Eckenrode said, arguing that the masking policy does not make places where people congregate inside prisons safer.
Wolf announced Tuesday the vaccination policy that covers about 25,000 employees of state prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities. It applies to prisons as well as state hospitals, veterans’ homes, community health centers and homes for those with intellectual disabilities.