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121 Cumberland County DOC employees could be laid off as officials scrap plans for new jail, plan to close current facility

BRIDGETON — More than 100 employees of Cumberland County’s Department of Corrections could be laid off as officials move to close their current facility and scrap plans for a new $65 million jail.

County officials last month sent a letter to the state Civil Service Commission notifying of the possible 121 layoffs, set to take place Nov. 3, according to documents obtained by The Press of Atlantic City.

However, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development has not yet listed the county DOC in its WARN notices, filings that must be made in advance of mass layoffs.

“This decision has not been voted on by the board of freeholders. It’s not policy, and it’s outrageous that the county has moved forward without our approval,” Freeholder Jack Surrency said. “I’m opposed to laying off 10% of the county workforce during the worst pandemic in the history of our country. It’s bad policy. And this fight is far from over.”

There is no agreement at this time, county spokeswoman Jody Hirata said in an email.

“The inmates will be housed at other county correctional facilities (they are still Cumberland County inmates, they are just housed in a different facility), however, we will still need staff,” Hirata said. “Staff will be needed for a holding facility and to provide transportation between the contracted correctional facility and court appearances and other appointments as well as processing admissions for new arrests with transportation (approximately 49 correctional staff and employees).”

In the county’s letter, dated Aug. 19 — the same day Freeholder Director Joseph Derella released a statement about officials reviewing the cost benefits of shipping inmates to surrounding counties — Craig E. Atkinson, director of personnel and human resources, said the proposed layoff is “economic in nature” as the county DOC is being downsized.

“Due to the fact that Cumberland County is contracting with other counties for the housing of adult inmates,” Atkinson continued, “pursuant to Labor Counsel advice, Cumberland County is entering into a direct housing contract and will maintain a stand-alone Department of Corrections.”

Officials will “continue to explore all alternatives” before the layoff date, according to the letter, adding there are no full-time positions to which the employees can be assigned or transferred to lessen the impacts of the layoffs.

And although the county will no longer house inmates, the county’s DOC will still include three keyboarding clerks and a community service worker, as well as one correctional police captain, eight lieutenants, 15 sergeants and 17 officers, according to the letter.

Over the past two months, county officials have sporadically released information about ending the new jail project in addition to closing the current facility, but no hard dates or deadlines have been made public, and the freeholder board hasn’t voted on the issue.

So far, the project has cost more than $13.3 million, according to data provided by the Cumberland County Improvement Authority.

Victor Bermudez, president of PBA 231, the union that represents officers at the jail, said they have received a proposed layoff plan, but “our membership has not officially received their pink slips.”

State PBA President Pat Colligan has appointed a team to collaborate with the local’s counsel, Bermudez said.

“The PBA will continue to fight for the integrity and safety of the community as sworn officers while seeking answers on where the $13 million of the taxpayers’ money has gone to a phantom jail facility they were never asked about,” he said.

Bermudez, who was previously on paid suspension pending termination from the facility after officials alleged he violated an inmate’s health privacy rights in April, was “removed from office” effective July 1, according to his attorney, Arthur J. Murray.

Officials announced in July that the freeholder board was reconsidering the new jail and considering building a community center instead, citing a devastated local economy and a low inmate population, both attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, in August, they released a statement about the possible taxpayer savings if they enter into a direct-services contract with other counties as their inmate population has decreased due to changes in recent years such as the elimination of the cash bail system.

The new jail was scheduled to open this year — after more than two years of planning and construction — holding up to 398 inmates near South Woods State Prison on South Burlington Road.

The plan was to demolish the current jail, adjacent to the courthouse on West Broad Street, once work was complete. Officials have previously said the current facility is “obsolete” and must be replaced.

The plans had called for the Improvement Authority to own the facility, while the county would run the operations.

Stockton University welcomes freshmen back to campus

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Eager freshmen waited in line alone, masks on and spaced 6 feet apart from one another outside the Sports Center at Stockton University.

“I’m kind of nervous, but everyone seems nice,” said Kiomarys Moya, 19, of Wildwood, after checking in with staff.

About 300 freshmen living on campus in both Atlantic City and Galloway Township began moving into their dorm rooms Thursday at Stockton, the first of three move-in days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In total, Stockton will welcome 2,200 students across all grade levels to live on campus this year, about a third fewer than last year. The college plans to offer about 64% of its classes remotely, 10% in person and the remainder hybrid.

The atmosphere for freshmen move-in day was calmer than in previous years, as many of the activities and much of the hustle and bustle had to be cut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were only allowed to bring two people to help them move in. Student helpers were cut back drastically, and freshmen were given appointment times to arrive to keep the flow of traffic to a minimum.

A DJ blasted music curated by students ahead of their arrival, and members of the student transition team, TALONS (Transition Activity Leaders of New Students), greeted the new students at the door.

“For the students, they’re still pretty excited,” said TALONS representative “Yesi” Pacheco Pacheco, 21, of Mount Holly, Burlington County, who held up a sign reading, “I Will Support You,” as students arrived. “The mood is still definitely different from previous years.”

Lorenzo Donohue, 20 of West Caldwell, Essex County, is one of the head students for the TALONS program and spent the morning in Atlantic City before coming to the Galloway campus. He said the new students had a lot of questions but quickly settled in.

“After just a small conversation, I’ve never seen students so happy to be a part of Stockton. It was really eye-opening to see how important this place is to people who really aren’t even students yet,” Donohue said.

Bryan Mutz, 18, of Rockaway Township, Morris County, said moving into college during a pandemic was “obviously” not how he imagined his college career would start, but he always wanted to go away to school.

“I figured I’m going to have to get used to it,” he said about living on campus with social distancing regulations in place. “It really came down to what my professors were doing with their classes.”

Khanya Martin, 18, of Mays Landing, said she knew she wasn’t moving far from home but was looking forward to her first experience on her own.

“I’m excited,” said Martin, who brought along her mom, Hameda, and sister Imani to help her move in. “I feel safe as long as everybody has their masks on and follows the guidelines. I think everything is going to be OK.”

Her mother said she felt comfortable with what the college had done to prepare for reopening its campuses amid the pandemic.

“I’m happy she’s not too far away,” Hameda Martin said. “I’m looking forward to her having the experience on campus.”

“We’re so used to this now,” she said about the COVID-related restrictions.

Stockton’s Director of Student Transition Ana Rodriguez said that despite the virus, the college made an effort to make move-in day exciting for the new students, including a new social media campaign called #StocktonUandIWill. The new students were asked to fill out a sign making a pledge, like studying harder or obtaining a certain GPA, and take a photo that they can post to social media with the hashtag.

“It encourages students to set goals at the beginning of their college career,” Rodriguez said. “These are all things we as mentors will hold them accountable to.”

In four years, the TALONS team plans to create a montage of these photos so students can look back on them and see whether they achieved their goals.

GALLERY: Freshmen move-in day at Stockton University

Election chiefs worry about uncertainty as voting nears

Political battles and pending court fights threaten to upend months of planning for the pandemic election, officials are warning. In key states, they remain hamstrung with only weeks to prepare.

Ongoing partisan litigation could dictate dramatic last-minute changes to rules and procedures in several states. Legislatures continue debating laws that could change how votes are processed. Meanwhile, money to pay for counting 150 million or more votes during the pandemic is stalled in Congress.

Time is short. Though Election Day is two months away, ballots are being mailed to voters on Friday in North Carolina. By the end of the month, early voting will be underway in states like Minnesota, Virginia and Vermont. Mail-in ballots will begin being mailed out Oct. 5 in New Jersey.

Many election officials in states likely to decide the presidential race — the frontline planners — say they believe they will be ready. But in interviews, they also warned of a worrisome uncertainty that could undermine efforts to run a safe, fair and accurate election.

“I’ve got a growing list of things that I’d normally do, but I can’t,” said Forrest Lehman, elections director in central Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County.

Lehman says he’s been scrambling since the coronavirus hit in March. He’s recruited dozens of new poll workers to replace those who may be vulnerable to infection. He’s ordered supplies to ensure in-person polling stations can be clean and safe. His four-person office bought a new $11,000 machine that opens envelopes to prepare for an expected avalanche of mail ballots.

Still, he’s braced for trouble. In Pennsylvania, courts have yet to decide whether the state can expand the use of drop boxes to collect ballots, if mail ballots need to be received or just postmarked by Election Day, and who’s allowed to monitor polling places. The legislature is also considering a change to election procedures.

“We don’t know what the rules are,” Lehman said.

At least 170 lawsuits have been filed across the country over voting procedures, many by groups tied to the two major political parties or by the parties themselves. Some still pending this year could have major consequences.

In Wisconsin, a judge has yet to rule on a Democratic lawsuit seeking several changes, including lifting the state’s requirement that voters provide identification to get absentee ballots. In Nevada and Montana, the Trump campaign is suing to prevent the states from sending out mail ballots to all voters.

Rulings can set off confusion. In Iowa, two judges last week invalidated 64,000 absentee ballot requests that they said were improperly filled out, after the Trump campaign sued. Democrats asked another judge to rule them valid.

It’s not just lawsuits. In several states, lawmakers have been unable to agree on new procedures, including recommendations from often-nonpartisan election officials.

Among the most pressing is when election officials can count the vote. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states that could determine the presidential race, election laws bar officials from processing mail ballots before Election Day.

Election officials in those states have warned for months that those laws will not only slow the tally of mailed ballots but could fuel distrust in the outcome.

The laws ensure that the first publicly available numbers will be a count of in-person voters, who are more likely to be Republicans. The full number of Democratic votes — and the ultimate winner of each state — could come days later. That could leave Americans with a distorted impression of the results for days.

Can a ‘Blue Wave’ shake deep red Cape May County?

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — In a five-person race for two seats on the Cape May County governing body — which may not be called the Board of Chosen Freeholders for much longer — the Republican incumbents seem to have the odds.

Republicans have resisted changes to those laws, arguing there’s no need to revise long-standing statutes and contending it could make the system vulnerable to fraud. In Pennsylvania, the legislature is debating a bill to allow earlier processing, but it’s unclear the measure will pass and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf before Election Day.

In Michigan, election officials have also been pleading unsuccessfully with their Republican-controlled legislature to change the law on mail processing. Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state, said her office is now looking for other ways to help local clerks speed up the count.

One big target is Detroit, which stumbled badly in mail ballot counting during last month’s primary. In more than 70% of the city’s precincts, the number of counted absentee ballots did not match the number recorded. The state’s canvassing board has called for Benson’s office to take control of Detroit’s elections in November, and on Wednesday her office announced it will jointly oversee the voting along with the city.

Benson and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey both attributed the errors to exhausted staff and novice workers who couldn’t start processing mail ballots until Election Day.

“They got tired. They didn’t care. They threw everything in a box and left,” Winfrey said.

Errors like that could have disastrous consequences in November.

Trump has spread distrust of mail voting among Republicans, baselessly claiming it could lead to massive fraud although that has not occurred in the five states that regularly mail ballots to all voters. On Wednesday, Trump encouraged voters in North Carolina to attempt to vote twice — both by mail and in-person — as a way to test the system. Voting twice is a felony in the state.

Later, Trump slightly walked back those comments, tweeting that people who vote early by mail should show up at polling places and vote again if their ballots haven’t been counted

“We’re faced with the president undermining vote by mail,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat. “It’s just another level of misinformation we have to contend with.”

Hobbs said a big part of her election preparation is countering misinformation on social media. Her office has been contacting Facebook about misleading posts and trying to get a verified blue check mark on local election offices’ Twitter accounts, so voters know the information from those accounts are legitimate.

Adding to the chaos is rapper Kanye West’s quixotic presidential bid. Lawsuits trying to remove or insert West’s name on the ballot could delay the printing of ballots in states like Arizona, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Obstacles remain at 100th anniversary ratifying of allowing women to vote

EDITORS NOTE: Aug. 26 marks the anniversary of the 19th Amendment being signed into law. On Aug. 26, 1920 U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the Proclamation of the Women's Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The below story ran on February 9, 2020 on New Jersey approving it.  

Amid the uncertainty, election officials have tried to focus on what they can control and learning lessons from the chaotic spring primaries.

In Milwaukee, election officials expect to have most of the city’s 184 polling stations open for the general election. Only five polling places were open in April and lines stretched for blocks.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has ordered 125,000 masks, 130,000 pairs of gloves, 5,600 spray bottles to hold 10,000 liters of disinfectant. It has purchased 1 million pens so all voters get their own and 6,000 rolls of painter’s tape to mark floors to ensure social distancing.

In Florida and North Carolina, election offices filed requests with their emergency management counterparts to get protective gear.

“The pandemic makes it feel like you’re becoming a healthcare administrator as well as an election official,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg executive director of Milwaukee’s elections commission.

It’s been hard to pay for these new expenses, and election experts say states have had to defer public information campaigns or take other steps to handle the cost. Congress allocated $400 million in election aid in the spring, but another $3.6 billion that the Democratic-controlled House passed has been stalled by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Charities have stepped into the void, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $300 million to foundations that had already started ending millions to help cash-strapped election offices.

Philadelphia, which received $10 million in those initial grants, hopes to have close to its typical number of polling places open — about 800, said spokesman Nick Custodio.

“We’re going to try to have as normal an election as possible,” Custodio said.

breaking topical
Smoking inside Atlantic City casinos returns Friday despite health concerns

ATLANTIC CITY — Indoor dining and beverage service on the casino floor will return Friday morning, much to the delight of the gaming industry, employees and guests.

But, along with permitting food and drinks inside Atlantic City casinos, Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order also allows for the resumption of smoking indoors, a decision that raised health concerns from employees and guests.

“I felt safe at first coming back with all the (security measures in place),” said a casino dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity because casino employees are not authorized to speak directly to the media. “Now, how is letting indoor smoking safe? Not only to us, but our families and our nonsmoking guests. ... I feel like no one cares about us.”

As of 6 a.m. Friday, all nine Atlantic City casino properties will permit smoking under the same state guidelines that existed before the coronavirus pandemic. Per COVID-19 regulations, guests must wear a mask when not smoking or drinking on the casino floor and must remain seated while doing so.

By local ordinance, casinos are allowed to have smoking on 25% of the gaming floor at both table games and slot machines.

Steve Callender, regional president for Caesars Entertainment Inc. and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the industry acknowledges the risks of smoking indoors, particularly for table games dealers who are stationary. Callender said individual casinos can, in some instances, accommodate a dealer’s request to work a non-smoking game, and many of the properties offer face shields to table game employees. He also noted that all table games have partitions between players and dealers.

“I think we protect them as best we can,” Callender said. “And, we’re just following the governor’s rules.”

William Douville, bargaining chair of UAW Local 1127, the union representing table game dealers at Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, said permitting smoking during the pandemic was “ridiculous.”

“We would like them to issue a no-smoking order in Atlantic City until the end of the pandemic,” Douville said.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office responded to several questions about allowing smoking in the casinos by stating that Monday’s executive order “reverts back to existing state law, which generally prohibits smoking in almost all indoor areas, including all indoor restaurants, with the exception of certain areas that are specified in statute, such as casino floors.”

Murphy addressed the smoking issue Wednesday during his COVID-19 briefing, stating, in part, that action could be taken “if we can find a way to prove that health realities are worsened as it relates to COVID, in specific,” or if state legislators amended the 2007 New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which carves out a smoking exemption for Atlantic City’s gambling halls.

Casinos in Atlantic City briefly went non-smoking in 2008, but the backlash from guests was immediately evident and the industry pressured the city to reverse course within weeks. Revel Casino Hotel (now Ocean Casino Resort) was completely non-smoking, but the prohibition contributed to the property’s downfall, according to most industry experts.

The easing of COVID-related restrictions comes at a crucial time for the casino industry, which just reported a $112 million operating loss from being closed for the entire second quarter of 2020. Even after Murphy permitted casinos to reopen in early July, prohibitions against indoor dining, floor beverage service and smoking remained.

On Monday, Murphy issued Executive Order 183, which reads, in part, “After 6:00 a.m. on Friday, September 4, 2020, any retail, recreational, and entertainment business that is authorized to open its indoor premises to the public may allow the consumption of food, beverages, or smoking in those indoor premises, when otherwise permitted by State law.”

Jennifer Constantino, of Marlton, Burlington County, is among those casino patrons who believe the smoking ban should have remained. Constantino said if the entire industry was forced to comply with a smoking ban, then no casino operator would be at a competitive disadvantage, unlike when Revel decided to do it alone.

“I think that New Jersey is making a mistake allowing the smoking back in the casinos,” she said. “This was the perfect opportunity to continue the non-smoking in the casinos across the board.”

Since information about COVID-19 is evolving, the connection between smoking and the virus is not exact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said smokers “might be at an increased risk” for contracting the virus. A recent article in Health magazine explored the idea that someone could contract COVID-19 from secondhand smoke.

“It’s plausible to presume that a plume of smoke, which is comprised of respiratory droplets, can result in COVID-19 transmission,” Dr. Osita Onugha, a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told the magazine.

Robert Zlotnick, executive director of Atlantic Prevention Resources and co-founder of the Smoke Free Atlantic City Coalition, said the group’s membership — which includes active and former casino employees — was concerned that allowing smoking indoors, particularly during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system, would increase the likelihood of guests and workers getting sick.

“While we are concerned about the long-term effects of secondhand smoke in the workforce in the Atlantic City casinos, this is not necessarily about that right now,” Zlotnick said. “This is more about the spread of the coronavirus.”

A 2008 Atlantic City visitor profile survey (no such study has been conducted since) performed by Spectrum Gaming Group for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority found that 23% of casino customers smoke. As of 2018, the CDC estimated that less than 14% of Americans smoke.

What were the biggest jackpots scored at Atlantic City casinos in July?