Disciplinary infractions prevent some Wis. DOC employees from getting hazard pay

The money was distributed under a merit-based model, meaning many employees were excluded because they broke a rule or didn't meet the criteria

By Emily Hamer
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Dave Ruples woke up at about 5 a.m. in September 2019 feeling groggy, tired and a little lightheaded.

He had about an hour before he had to be at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac for his job as guard. But as he got dressed and took his dog out, everything started spinning faster and faster until he couldn't stay standing anymore — another bout of vertigo, something he struggled with for about two years.

"It can get really bad, and then I have to lay back down or I'm gonna puke or I'm gonna fall over," he said. "There was no way I could walk or drive. I would have probably ended up in a ditch or killed somebody."

He called in sick at about 5:30 a.m. — a work rule violation because he's required to call in at least 90 minutes before the start of his shift. Later, he got suspended from work for one day because of the late call and a previous late sick call two years earlier.

More than a year later, Ruples was denied a $1,500 bonus to frontline state employees supposedly in recognition of the hazardous conditions they have endured the COVID-19 pandemic. Taycheedah alone had 473 COVID-19 infections and one death among inmates and 85 self-reported cases among staff.

The reason for the denial? The rule infraction from 2019.

Corrections human resources director Kari Beier told staff in a Nov. 24 email that the payment "is in recognition of the risk posed to those in our care, and the health risks our employees face in their jobs working onsite at a facility during COVID."

However, it technically wasn't hazard pay because Wisconsin doesn't have a law for distributing hazard pay to state employees.

As a result, the money had to be distributed under a merit-based model — meaning many employees were excluded because they broke a rule or didn't meet the criteria.

Walt Jackson, vice president of the local workers union Madison Employees Association, said that's the wrong way to go about recognizing employees for the danger they face during the pandemic. He said Wisconsin employees should be able to get true hazard pay.

"(Hazard pay) definitely should not be merit-based," Jackson said. "It should be given across the board to anyone, no matter how long you've worked there, no matter what your work rule situation is."

Molly Vidal, spokesperson for the Department of Administration, said the state didn't have another option for doling out the payments, which were funded through the federal CARES Act.

'It's unfair'

In December, 5,522 employees from the Department of Corrections received the $1,500, DOC spokesperson John Beard said. Frontline workers from the Department of Health Services and Department of Veterans Affairs — including nurses, personal care staff, food service workers and housekeeping staff at 24/7 facilities — also got the payment.

But Ruples and 533 other DOC employees were not given the bonus because they had been disciplined within the last two years. Another 735 staff were excluded because they had been working for less than a year, but they can be reconsidered once their probation or trial period ends, Beard said.

Ninety-three additional employees were excluded for a variety of other reasons, totaling 1,362 DOC employees who were not given the $1,500, according to numbers provided by DOC.

"I personally believe it's unfair," Ruples said. "We all took the risks. We've all been in there working. We've all been putting in our mandatory overtime."

Ruples acknowledged that some of the more than 500 employees who were disciplined may have had much more serious infractions, such as using excessive force or bringing in contraband for inmates.

But Ruples said at least a dozen employees at his prison alone were well-deserving of the hazard pay recognition who did not get the money.

Mitchell Krogman and Mat McCullick, both correctional officers at another state prison, Prairie du Chien, were also disqualified for small mistakes.

Krogman called in sick 20 minutes late over the summer because his child was sick when he woke up for work — Krogman's only rule infraction in the last 15 years of working for DOC. McCullick was late to work just once within the last two years because he forgot to set his alarm.

Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution saw a total of 413 COVID-19 infections among inmates and 75 among staff. One inmate died. Both Krogman and McCullick worked with inmates and staff who were positive, sometimes without access to the proper protective equipment, they said.

"I'm extremely frustrated over it," McCullick said. "You go into a situation where you're willing to put your health and everything on the line, and then get told, 'Yeah, but you know what, you're not good enough. Thanks anyways.'"

No exceptions

When asked why DOC couldn't make exceptions and provide the $1,500 to individuals with minor disciplinary infractions, Beard said the rules for who can get this kind of bonus — called discretionary merit compensation — are "black and white" in state law.

The state's compensation plan states that employees are ineligible for the bonus if they didn't have a satisfactory performance evaluation for the past year, were disciplined within the past two years, or were still in their original probation period or first 12 months of a trial period.

Also excluded are limited-term employees, contractor staff, those on leave without pay, those out and receiving workers compensation, and supervisors who had not completed performance evaluations on all subordinates, according to the compensation plan.

Employees on leave or workers compensation, or those within their first year, can be reconsidered at a later date.

"There is no room for interpretation," Beard said.

DOC employees can be disciplined for a variety of reasons, including falsifying records, tardiness, other attendance issues, stealing, inflicting bodily harm on someone, harassing others, possessing a controlled substance, making false statements about DOC and inappropriate attire.

Ruples said "there should be some way" to include those with minor infractions.

Beard said DOC recognizes the risks that its employees put themselves in and wishes there was a way more people could have gotten the payment.

"We understand the nature and difficulty of the job," Beard said. "That is why we regularly advocate for greater pay for our staff and that's why we were glad to have the funds to provide the discretionary merit compensation. We wish all our staff that met the requirements had been eligible."

The risks

Ruples, 53, is now retired, but he worked throughout Taycheedah's major outbreaks in November and December. His last day was Feb. 2.

Although Ruples worked in housing units with positive inmates, he said he usually didn't have to interact with them directly. He was able to avoid the unit that had the most COVID-19 cases and never tested positive.

But Ruples said others weren't so lucky.

Krogman said he worked directly with inmates who were known to be positive for COVID-19, dispersing medications, working in the cells with them, escorting them to the restroom or taking them to the hospital.

For a week or so in November when Prairie du Chien had about 20 cases, Krogman said he was doing these tasks with a regular mask instead of an N95 mask because staff said the N95 didn't fit him properly.

Beard noted if an N95 mask doesn't form a seal with the face, it can't provide "the expected level of protection," per CDC guidelines. Employees who could not get a good fit were given surgical masks.

About a week after working without an N95 mask, Krogman tested positive for COVID-19.

Krogman, 34, experienced fatigue, loss of smell and "constant headaches," but recovered. He was more worried about his wife and three children — who thankfully didn't seem to get infected — and any potential long-term effects of the virus.

"It's very concerning," Krogman said. "I have young children. And still to this day, we don't know what the virus can or will do."

McCullick, 39, said he's surprised he never tested positive. He regularly worked on the housing unit where infected inmates were isolated from the rest of the prison. He also had close contact with multiple co-workers who tested positive.

When the outbreak of more than 370 active COVID-19 cases happened at the end of November, McCullick said he was only given an N95 when working in the hospital — not the rest of the prison, where the virus was running rampant.

Beard said it's possible not all staff wore N95s, such as those who were not in close proximity to those infected.

Krogman said the risky conditions they all worked in make it all the more frustrating to be denied the hazard bonus.

"We all put our lives on the line," he said.

State Rep. Christine Sinicki, D- Milwaukee, said the pandemic has shown that Wisconsin needs a law for distributing hazard pay.

"At the state level, we really haven't talked about hazard pay until COVID hit," Sinicki said. "And that's when, I guess, we realized that we don't even have anything on the books about hazard pay."

She said public employees, such as corrections workers, deserve recognition for having to work in close contact with people during a pandemic.

Sinicki said herself and other Democrats have tried to amend a few COVID-19-related bills to include hazard payment, but the efforts have "never gone anywhere" in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Gov. Tony Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback said Evers "has been advocating for hazard pay since the beginning of the pandemic" and plans to continue pushing for additional pay for frontline workers as the most recent federal coronavirus relief funds make their way to the states.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, didn't respond to a request for comment. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R- Oostburg, declined to comment.

Sinicki said she wants to sit down with workplace leaders and union representatives, and talk about what hazard pay should look like in the state. Its absence is a problem that "needs to be rectified," she said.

Jackson, the union vice president, said Wisconsin needs a way to compensate people who put their health in jeopardy just by showing up to work — without excluding those who made minor mistakes.

"If you're putting yourself at risk, you should get it," Jackson said. "Plain and simple."


(c)2021 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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