Feds fought family of prison guard who contracted COVID at work and died

The family of a Mission corrections officer fought his federal employer for compensation after he contracted COVID at work.

Prison officials made multiple attempts to convince WorkSafeBC an officer’s death from COVID was not related to his job despite the provincial agency having already ruled it was a workplace fatality.

That’s according to John Randle, the president of the local union for prison guards.

In August 2021, a Mission Institute officer contracted COVID after escorting an inmate to an off-grounds hospital. Soon the infection became serious and the officer was admitted to hospital, where he later died.

The Vancouver resident left behind a wife and young daughter.

After the officer’s death in 2021, Randle said the union recommended the family submit a claim to the Workers Compensation Board, also known as WorkSafeBC. (The officer’s name has not been released.)

“They did a whole big thorough investigation [and determined] that he caught COVID from performing his correctional officer duties, and therefore they deemed it a workplace death,” Randle told The Current.

But the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) refused to accept the ruling, he said. (CSC refused to comment on the case when contacted by The Current.)

“This is where things go really weird,” he said.

In a move Randle said he and his colleagues had never seen before, CSC held a closed-door meeting with the WorkSafeBC case manager to try and convince the agency to overturn the ruling. Randle said that usually when a meeting is held about an employee file, the employee or their representative is offered to participate. In this case, the union was only made aware of the meeting after the CSC’s argument failed and it filed an appeal.

“[It] caused a lot of strife for the family.”

To file the appeal, Randle said the CSC made another “odd” move by asking WCB’s workers’ advocacy group to make its appeal. Randle suggested that was a strategic move on the part of the federal organization because of the advocacy group’s stronger knowledge of WorkSafeBC policy.

“In a case where someone died, to see them doing things like that, just shows that they were really grasping at straws to try and change this case.”

The appeal was also eventually denied because CSC’s argument hinged on hypothetical scenarios on how the officer could have gotten ill and not statements of fact, Randle said. (WorkSafeBC did not release the decision to The Current. A Freedom of Information request was denied.)

CSC declined to appeal the ruling with the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal, an independent organization that can review WorkSafeBC decisions. Randle said the Justice Department advised CSC that the decision would be difficult to overturn.

The Current asked the CSC to explain its reasons for disputing the WorkSafeBC ruling, but they refused to provide a direct response citing privacy reasons. Instead the CSC commented on its commitment to safety.

“Our institutions have the capacity to continue operations in a safe and secure way and we are attentive to the health of our employees,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

The time to appeal the WorkSafeBC decision has now expired and the original ruling stands. Randle said the news came as a relief to the officer’s family. He said he often spoke to the officer’s wife during the appeal process.

“You could just hear her voice and her breaking down,” he said.

The Mission Institute suffered the largest COVID outbreak of any prison in Canada. More than 100 inmates and dozens of officers were infected during the outbreak. Two inmates died from the illness.

Randle said the officer and his family deserved more from his employers.

“Here's a guy who, during COVID, and especially during the Mission outbreak, which was one of the biggest in Canada, came to work and he worked and he worked… on his days off because they needed him,” Randle said. “When he contracted COVID and ultimately passed away, the employer turned its back on him.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Randle said there was frequent conflict between corrections officers and their employer.

“Some correctional officers chose to start wearing face masks on their own and they actually got disciplined by the CSC for wearing them right in the beginning of COVID because they said that it was causing fear amongst the inmates.”

Eventually the province made masks mandatory.

The first outbreak at Mission Institute was declared over in spring 2020. But the virus would return. In 2022, nearly another 100 inmates tested positive.

Randle said it's uncertain if the WorkSafeBC case has changed how management will deal with workplace fatalities in the future.

"We’re not really sure what to expect,” he said. “We hope this never happens again. But what it did do is it caused a lot of correctional officers to wonder what risks they're facing now.

“During the pandemic, when a lot of people got to work from home and all those kinds of safeguards, we didn't have those options, we had to come to work because of the nature of our job.”

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