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Prison guards seeking hazard pay for work during pandemic

Correction Officer Ginny Ligi says she was working 80-hour weeks in April 2020, often without the needed personal protective equipment, when she began feeling sick.

A test soon confirmed her worst fear — the intense vertigo, nausea and headaches were symptoms of COVID-19. She is one of an estimated 1,700 Connecticut Department of Correction workers to contract the coronavirus since the pandemic began, according to her union.

Ligi, who works at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, spent the next month at home, much of it in bed, worried about her future and whether she would pass the coronavirus on to her husband and three children.

“It was horrible,” she said. “After I came home sick, my 3-year-old would sit at my bedroom door crying, wanting to come in and see me and I couldn't let her. So, it was devastating for everybody.”

The Connecticut AFL-CIO on Monday asked Connecticut lawmakers to use this week's special legislative session to allocate federal COVID-19 relief funds to all those deemed essential workers during the pandemic, such as Ligi.

They are calling it “hero pay," and are asking for a dollar an hour for every hour worked, which would be an estimated $500 million for all of the state's essential employees.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee, said $22.5 million in total has been set aside at Gov. Ned Lamont's request for hazard pay during the height of the pandemic. Of that sum, about $10 million would go to essential state employees and $12.5 million to members of the Connecticut National Guard. Osten said she doesn't know how Lamont intends to dole out those funds.

“His people have not given us the list of where that’s going. So I don’t know,” she said. “My question is, what state employees does he consider essential? What is the job classification that you’re covering?”

Ligi said people don't understand the fear she and coworkers had to overcome every day just to report to work, not knowing which inmates and which coworkers might be infected. In the first weeks of the pandemic they had no N95 masks and gloves were in scarce supply, she said.

“We still had to tour every 15 minutes, 30 minutes, depending on what block we were on,” she said. “And unfortunately, you're with 104 inmates with two officers in a unit and really no place to social distance.”

The Correction Department, while not specifically endorsing the call for “hero pay,” released a statement Monday saying it is “deeply indebted” to those workers.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to put a value on the importance of serving the greater good,” the department said. “The countless acts of selfless service the men and women of the DOC performed during the pandemic were truly invaluable, and will leave a legacy for others to admire and emulate for a long time to come.”

Ligi, 37, came back to work in late May of last year, working 16-hour shifts through much of the pandemic. She said she still is suffering from inner-ear problems and chronic fatigue and her doctors can't tell her if she will ever fully recover.

She said the “hero pay” would be a morale booster.

“We're all just very tired and frankly feeling defeated," she said.

Associated Press Writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report

 

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