Two-thirds of the D.C. Jail's medical staff did not report to work yesterday in what city officials charged was an illegal "sickout."
Union officials representing employes at the jail denied any foreknowledge or support of the action, but they said that 17 out of 26 workers in the jail's infirmary apparently called in sick to display anger at the city's plan to hire a private contractor to run the jail's medical services.
"We do not want contractors in the department because we feel our jobs will be jeopardized in the future," said David Tinsley, chief shop steward at the jail.
"We are not dealing with a strike here. We have some employes who do not feel good, and they failed to show up for work," Tinsley said, adding that he expected that most of the workers who called in sick will report to work today.
"It's pretty obvious it was a concerted work action," said Donald H. Weinberg, head of the D.C. Office of Labor Relations, who noted that D.C. government workers are prohibited by law from striking.
He said that the workers had been declared absent without leave. "I would assume there is going to be loss of pay involved . . . . When they start coming back, we'll have to figure out just how sick they really are," he said.
Though union officials denied that there was a sickout, they noted that yesterday's absences came at a time of intense pressure on the D.C. Department of Corrections to abide by a court-ordered population ceiling at the D.C. Jail.
In addition to providing standard medical care, the jail's medical staff is responsible for giving physical examinations to all newly incarcerated District inmates within 24 hours of arrival. Union sources noted that any delay in those examinations could create a backlog that might force the jail population over its court-ordered cap of 1,694.
Officials said that there were 1,681 prisoners at the jail yesterday.
Others noted that the union is in contract negotiations with the city and suggested that the absences may strengthen the union's hand at the bargaining table.
Ernie V. Jumalon, principal executive officer and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 246, which represents corrections employes, said the action "was not organized by the union."
"I can't support anything and I wouldn't support any action prior to a meeting with the city" to discuss any grievances, he said. A meeting between the union and corrections officials is scheduled for tomorrow.
At issue is the city's plan to hire a contractor to provide all inmate medical services at the jail. At a Feb. 19 City Council budget hearing, Department of Corrections Director James Palmer said that the department wanted a contractor to run the jail's medical operations "to increase services" and to enable the department to comply with court orders governing the level of inmate medical care.
Palmer said the company that receives the contract probably will hire some of the staff that currently works in the jail's infirmary. He said that those not hired by the contractor will be transferred to medical jobs at Lorton and that "none will be dismissed when we go to contract."
Three medical employes from the jail testified at that hearing that it costs the Corrections Department about $1.8 million annually to to run the jail infirmary and that "it has been stated that the lowest contract bid was $2.4 million and the highest was $7.8 million."
"If just a small portion of that contract money would be spent to hire additional staff for the medical services" at the jail, the employes said in prepared testimony, the services "would be a model, trouble-free and efficient."
Union officials said yesterday that they have been kept in the dark about the plans to hire a contractor and that the city has not explained what will happen to employes who do not want to transfer to Lorton. They said they have not been told how the hiring of a private contractor would affect their hazardous-duty retirement benefits, among other issues.
Linda Boyd, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Administrative Services, said yesterday that bids for the contract were still being reviewed and that a decision is expected by tomorrow.
Jail shop steward Tinsley said that the Teamsters want to include a prohibition on hiring outside contractors in the union's contract negotiations with the city.
"If the contractor will submit bids lower than our salaries, then we feel the bottom line with the D.C. government is the dollar," he said. "If a contractor underbids at the jail, they will do the same at Lorton."
Tinsley said he also was concerned about indications that some of the doctors in the jail's infirmary are involved with the potential contractors and that a "sweetheart" contract may be in the making.
According to Joan Brindisi, a physician's assistant at the jail, one of the jail's doctors was interviewing infirmary employes yesterday for possible jobs with a contractor.