Corrections Officer Entitled To ‘Assault Pay’

Written on 01/05/2023

Jeffrey Howell was a corrections offi­cer for Essex County, Massachusetts. On January 2, 2018, Howell was working in the Essex County Correctional Facility when, in a different building, one inmate took another inmate hostage by holding a razor blade to his neck. An officer called Howell to help carry a metal footlocker downstairs so its contents could be used to address the hostage situation; in doing so, Howell injured his shoulder.

Howell began receiving bi-weekly workers’ compensation benefits but did not receive what is called “assault pay.” Under a state statute, “An employee in a jail or house of correction of a county who, while in the performance of duty, receives bodily injuries resulting from acts of violence of patients or prisoners in his custody, and who as a result of such in­jury is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits shall also be paid the difference between the workers’ compensation ben­efits and his regular salary, without such absence being charged against available sick leave credits.”

A state appeals court found that Howell should have received the sup­plemental assault pay. From the Court’s perspective, “Howell injured his shoulder while carrying equipment needed to address the hostage situation. Because of the inmate’s violent act of taking a hostage, Howell carried the footlocker down the stairs. Because he carried the footlocker down the stairs, he suffered a shoulder injury.

“Thus, Howell sustained an injury resulting from an act of inmate violence. Our case law makes clear that Howell need not have been in the presence of the violent inmate when he injured his shoulder, and that the inmate need not have directed his violent act at Howell, for the injury to have resulted from the inmate’s act of violence. Emphasizing that Howell was not on his way to the hostage-taking when he sustained his injury, the County contends that the injury was too remote to have resulted from the prisoner’s violent act. But the officer was responding urgently, in real time, to the immediate need caused by a prisoner holding another prisoner hostage with a razor at his throat, linkage well within the ambit of the statute, the limits of which are not implicated by these facts.

“Our holding requires us to deter­mine whether Howell’s assault pay must be reduced by the accrued sick pay he used. The County asserts that the sick pay must offset the assault pay because, if it does not, then the Department will have compensated Howell at a rate higher than his salary. The County’s position is inconsistent with the language of the statutes, which state that an employee entitled to assault pay will receive full pay ‘without such absence being charged against available sick leave credits.’

“The purpose and objective of these laws is to ensure that employees injured by the violence of prisoners or patients do not suffer any loss because of such injury. The Legislature intended assault pay to be a substitute for the use of accrued sick leave, and the statute essentially provides an added benefit to an employee assaulted in the course of his or her employment.”

Howell v. Sheriff of Essex County, 2022 WL 3568344 (Mass. App. 2022).

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