Morse: Incarcerated workers deserve a better wage especially for lifesaving work

  • In this Aug. 5, 2019 photo, bunk beds line the wall of a dormitory-style room at the Hampden County Sheriff's Department's minimum security, residential treatment facility in Springfield. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/30/2020 6:39:29 PM

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex Morse believes incarcerated workers should be paid more, especially when they are performing lifesaving work such as making masks and gowns in the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a Friday letter addressed to Gov. Charlie Baker and other top officials, Morse points to the contributions of inmates in making personal protective equipment, or PPE, to protect those fighting the pandemic. He says it’s wrong that these incarcerated workers are being paid $1 an hour or less.

“We cannot continue to discount the contributions of the incarcerated women and men making PPE to protect our frontline workers,” said Morse in the letter. “We must affirm the dignity of their life-saving contributions to our fight against COVID-19 by paying them a fair wage.”

In addition to the governor, the letter went to Carol Mici, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka.

Morse notes that inmates in the Hampden County Sheriff Department’s York Street Industries program have made more than 1,000 washable and reusable masks and gowns.

While Morse praises Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s leadership, he also says that “it is unconscionable that the inmates at Hampden County Jail and the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee are being paid no more than $1/hour for their life-saving work.”

Morse urges passage of legislation that would set a minimum wage for incarcerated workers in the state. That bill is sponsored by Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, and cosponsored by Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Chynah Tyler, D-Boston.

The Holyoke mayor also urges Congress to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to include incarcerated workers explicitly.

Although Cocchi could not be reached by the Gazette on Monday, he did address Morse’s call as part of a larger press conference about the coronavirus response. The sheriff said he would not use inmates as a “political football,” and he would have liked a direct phone call from Morse.

Cocchi said at the press conference that the inmates making the protective gear volunteered to do so, and that they are being paid a stipend that he estimates is between $1 and $2 a day. He also said that it costs upward of $57,000 a year to incarcerate a person, noting that their work is about repaying a debt to society.

The legislation cosponsored by Sabadosa would, among other things, set the minimum wage for incarcerated workers at $1 an hour, and subject this wage to yearly adjustment for inflation.

“We’re not talking about massive amounts of money,” Sabadosa said.

Additionally, she noted that working while incarcerated is a privilege, not a right.

Morse told the Gazette that he supported the legislation prior to the pandemic, but that the pandemic shows its necessity.

“I think it’s a very clear example of why this is necessary,” Morse said. “They’re doing work and they’re saving people’s lives.”

He also said that he would reach out to Sabadosa, as his letter was not coordinated with the legislation’s sponsors.

As for Morse’s support, Sabadosa said that the issue would get more public attention if more people voiced their opinion about it.

She also said that in the United States, “there should be no such thing as free labor.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

 




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