I-Team: As Pandemic Eased, NYC Jail Officers Took More Than Double the Sick Days

New York City jail officers were about four times more likely to call out sick in the first three quarters of 2021 than they were in the same period of 2019 — even as COVID positivity rates leveled off and public health conditions improved

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An expansive set of payroll records obtained by the I-Team shows New York City correction officers dramatically accelerated their use of unlimited sick leave in 2021 — even as COVID positivity rates leveled off and public health conditions improved.

The data, supplied by the New York City Office of Payroll Administration, provides the most complete picture yet of a jail workforce plagued by a pattern of absenteeism, straining the city’s ability to safely house criminal defendants who are awaiting trial.

Using the payroll records, the I-Team constructed a "heat map" showing the calendar days in which uniformed correction officers were most likely to call out sick.

Sick Leave by NYC Jail Officers

Note: The payroll office reports staff leave as total hours requested each day by all employees. To calculate the percent of staff on leave, we divided the total hours by eight (the length of a standard shift) and compared the estimated totals to annual staffing levels. Source: New York City Office of Payroll Administration.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Workforce Shrinks, But Sick Calls Swell 150 Percent

According to the payroll data, in 2019 an average of 302 uniformed correction officers called out sick each day. As the pandemic descended on New York, the number of daily sick calls rose to 502. But as the city emerged from the pandemic, rather than returning to pre-pandemic levels, sick calls shot up even further to an average of 754 missed shifts each day in the first three quarters of 2021. That represents a 150 percent increase in total sick days over pre-pandemic levels.

And the rate of absenteeism was actually worse. Between 2019 and 2021, as bail reform decreased the prisoner population, the Department of Correction decreased its uniformed headcount by more than 1,700.

That means, when controlling for the overall size of the workforce, jail officers were about four times more likely to call out sick in the first three quarters of 2021 than they were in the same period of 2019.

"I think it’s essentially a systems breakdown," said Brad Lander, the New York City Comptroller. "Once one officer knows, you know what, you can just call out sick and they’re still going to keep paying you then why does the person next to you still come to work?"

For months, the Adams administration and the de Blasio administration before it have offered differing explanations for the spike in sick days claimed by correction officers.

Louis Molina, the current jail commissioner appointed by Mayor Eric Adams, has suggested the problem is prior mismanagement and a failure to hire more correction officers to backfill and support uniformed staff who are suffering from depleted morale and more violent attacks by prisoners.

"The staffing crisis that we are enduring was triggered by the pandemic, and exacerbated by years of mismanagement and neglect by previous administrations," Molina said in an emailed statement to the I-Team. "Since I assumed office in January, the average daily number of officers out sick decreased by 40 percent from where it was at its height last summer."

According to the Department of Correction, about 250 staff members have been suspended for abuse of sick leave or referred for discipline in the first six months of this year. But there are still more than a thousand uniformed officers out sick on any given day.

Vincent Schiraldi, the Commissioner of the Department of Correction under Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the culture of sick leave abuse has gotten so bad, he now advocates a federal take-over of Rikers Island, which has been operating under a federal monitor for six years.

"We need to close Rikers Island and, until we do, the federal court should install a receiver to bring order and safety to the chaos and violence that plague it," Schiraldi said.

Is More Staff the Solution?

Jails on Rikers Island already enjoy a favorable prisoner-to-staff ratio when compared with other big city correctional systems. According to New York City’s 2021 Mayor’s Management Report, there are five jail officers for every three prisoners in 2020.

In Cook County, Illinois, home to the city of Chicago, the same five officers had to watch seven prisoners. In Los Angeles, California, the same five jail officers had to watch 19 prisoners.

Comparing Jail Staffing Ratios

In 2020, New York City jails had more corrections officers per inmate than other large jail systems and the US average.

Note: For each city, ratios were calculated using average daily jail populations compared to the annual reported number of corrections officers. Source: Federal and County Correctional Reports.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Earlier this year, Mayor Adams asked City Council for millions to hire more than 500 new correction officers to staff Rikers Island, but the request was criticized by those, including Lander, who say city jails should bring back more staff members out on leave before hiring new workers.

"They need the staff that we are already paying to come to work," Lander said. "Just imagine you were running a business and you had 20 percent of your workers who didn’t come to work but you just kept paying them. No one would say well let’s just hire 20 percent more workers on top of the 20 percent who aren’t showing up."

Benny Boscio, Jr., President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 7,000 uniformed jail officers, declined an interview request and did not accept an offer to view the payroll data, but still issued a statement suggesting the data is flawed.

"The NYC Office of Payroll Administration consistently failed to ensure Correction Officers were paid for the hundreds of hours in overtime they incurred while working over 24 hours straight, without meals during and after the pandemic," Boscio said. "The data they provided as the basis for this one-sided story is as reliable as their overtime payments to our officers."

Representatives from city’s Office of Payroll Administration said Boscio’s claim was baseless.

"The suggestion that this data is incorrect or incomplete is false,: said an email from the office. "The payment information provided reflects the actual payments made to and leave usage by Correction Officers for the applicable time periods."

Increasing Attacks on Correction Officers

For months, Boscio has blamed increasing violence in city jails for skyrocketing officer leave, but the payroll data shows no evidence workplace injuries are the primary reason so many uniformed staff members are staying home. A recent report by the federal monitor overseeing Rikers Island recorded 2,113 detainee assaults on staff between January and September 2021. That amounts to nearly eight assaults on jail officers each day.

Despite that, the percentage of correction officers out on leave due to workplace injuries remained relatively steady from 2019 to 2021.

Injury Leave Constant as Sick Leave Swells

Percent of New York City correctional officers on sick leave and injury leave, rolling average

Source: New York City Office of Payroll Administration.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Sick Calls Explode in September 2021

By far the most intense period of jail absenteeism in 2021 came in mid-September, when more than a third of the jail’s approximately 7,300 uniformed officers called out sick on some days.

Boscio blamed the spike in sick leave partly on a change in policy intended to crack down on abuse of unlimited sick time. The prior month, Schiraldi, the former commissioner, began requiring jail staff to verify some sick calls by seeing the department’s paid medical provider. The union contends there were backlogs in getting appointments – forcing officers to stay out sick when they were well enough to come in.

"[The] former Commissioner, now Federal Receiver champion, Vinny Schiraldi, created one of the most disastrous sick leave polices last year that forced our officers to be out sick longer than necessary and he then subjected them to excessive discipline for following his policy," Boscio said.

Schiraldi disputed the claim that required medical visits exacerbated the staffing problem, and criticized the union’s position that more uniformed staff should be hired while so many are still out on leave.

"The Union’s only solution is to hire thousands more officers into the most expensive and heavily staffed jail system in the country," Schiraldi said. "I guess I understand why that’s in their narrowly self-interested position, but why in the world would the rest of us New Yorkers find that acceptable?"

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