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The Colorado Dept. of Corrections Youthful Offender System facility in Pueblo, Colo. is shown in this May 16, 2021 photo. Photo by Mike Sweeney/Special to The Colorado Trust

Colorado Department of Corrections officials are revisiting a policy requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees as the department scrambles to fill nearly 1,800 open positions. 

The vaccine mandate and testing requirements for prison workers remained under administrative review Friday, and a potential rollback could come this week, the DOC confirmed. 

“Any decisions will be made with the advice of our medical team and public health experts,” Annie Skinner, a DOC spokeswoman, said in a written statement.  “I can’t elaborate further at this time until the review is complete. Once that final review has been completed, we will notify our staff and the incarcerated population of any changes.”

The move comes amid efforts to speed hiring and chip away at a backlog of vacancies that has swelled to nearly one-quarter of the DOC’s 8,000-person workforce, fueling safety concerns among workers at state prisons

“Folks are working 16-hour shifts. Sometimes people are doing it twice a week; they’re exhausted. It’s creating dangerous situations within the facility and even when they leave the facility,” said Madeline Griffith, a spokeswoman for WINS, the state workers union. “Simple mistakes are happening. It’s the exhaustion.”

In January, the state prison system lowered the minimum age of prison guards to 18 from 21 in hopes of drawing more candidates, and this summer it began hosting a series of hiring fairs where qualified candidates are given on-the-spot job offers. The department made 239 hires in the past two months, including candidates ranging from 19 to 21 years old, the DOC said. 

The staffing shortage reached a head as the pandemic dealt an outsize blow to Colorado prisons, sickening a total of 14,847 inmates and 6,198 staff members, and spawning complaints and a lawsuit over conditions behind bars. Thirty-one inmates have died of COVID, and four more died of other causes while they had COVID or were suspected of having it.

Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility is among the 21 CDOC facilities that would be impacted by removing the vaccine mandate. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As COVID swept through prisons, so did job vacancies. The number of open positions in Colorado’s 21 prisons reached 1,771 as of last week, more than triple the 576 vacancies in April 2020.  Overall staff turnover grew to 22.6% in April compared with 15.7% in April 2020. 

Many workers cite burnout as the reason they left the job. That includes teachers and case managers who were forced to cover shifts as guards because of employee shortages in the prisons where they work, according to The Denver Post. 

Reported COVID numbers in state prisons have since declined, with active cases now at about 60 inmates and 26 workers, but that’s done little to encourage job hunters, recent data shows. 

Aside from the pandemic, the prison system is also the victim of a statewide labor shortage that has left businesses, schools and government offices across the state grappling with vacancies they have been unable to fill.

In June, CDOC launched a five-person team to address the hiring backlog and oversee a series of fast-track hiring events from Aug. 9 to 17.

Of the nearly 1,800 job openings to fill, a little more than 400 of them are for the correctional officer positions. Qualified applicants could receive an “on-the-spot contingent offer,” according to the recent media advisory. 

“If they pass the qualifications there at the fast track event, we will provide a letter to the candidate,” CDOC Talent Acquisition Workforce Leader Jessica Staats said. “They also have to pass a medical screening, which we do not do on site, which is why the job offer is contingent.”

The department is attempting other hiring strategies, including recruiting candidates from other states.

“We definitely need help decreasing the vacancy rate,” Staats said. 

A $200 signing bonus is being offered to those who agree to work at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, which was hit hard by both the staffing shortage and pandemic. 

That’s less than what other states are doing, however. In Nebraska, for example, correctional facilities are offering thousands of dollars in signing bonuses. 

It remains to be seen if lifting the vaccine mandate would draw more applicants. But it’s clear the COVID vaccine has been broadly unpopular with CDOC workers.

Within four months of the vaccine first becoming available, roughly 56% of CDOC workers had not received their first dose. The department began requiring the COVID vaccine for employees in August 2021 after previous efforts to encourage employees to vaccinate, including a $500 incentive, fell short.

Despite requiring all employees be vaccinated by October 2021, only roughly 80% of current staff to date have been fully vaccinated, according to Skinner.

Dropping the vaccine requirement could entice more people to sign up for DOC jobs, but unless the department does more to improve employee retention — such as eliminating mandatory double shifts — it won’t solve the hiring crisis, Griffith said. 

“You know, the more people you can get in the door. Though I don’t know if recruitment has really been the issue,” she said. “What we’ve really seen is the retention.”

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