Staffing shortages lead to forced overtime, turmoil at Maine county jails

The head of the corrections officers' union said county jail employees were forced to work more than 600 overtime shifts in the second half of 2019 due to short-staffing

Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, Maine — The union representing correctional officers in York and Cumberland counties says the guards are being forced to work too much overtime, leading to turmoil among staff at the jails.

The issue came to light in a letter a National Correction Employee Union official wrote to both county governments urging them to undo a contract to house a few dozen inmates from York County, which is short-staffed, at the Portland jail.

But Cumberland County also is struggling to hire and retain employees, and the resulting shortage led to 600 forced overtime shifts at the Cumberland County Jail in the second half of 2019, the union said, and the jail is tracking close to that same rate so far this year.

“This is an issue that’s much bigger,” William Doyle, regional director for the National Correction Employee Union, said in the letter in which he urged the counties to rewind the $350,000 agreement and find another place for the overflow of prisoners.

“Counties and jails really have to start looking at the bigger picture of how to attract and retain employees. It’s not always about money and benefits, it’s about quality of life. When you’ve been forced over … for so long, you might say, ‘I’ll take a small pay cut and go work somewhere else.'”

The letter, which was sent via email Thursday to commissioners of both counties, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, York County Sheriff William King Jr., and to both county’s managers, comes amid continued contract negotiations between Cumberland County staff and the union, whose most recent contract expired July 1.

Cumberland County manager Jim Gailey said removing the 20 inmates from York County now housed at the Cumberland County Jail would not make a large difference in the effect on Cumberland County corrections workers.

“If the 20 inmates went back to York County, we would not be able to shut down a (housing) pod or reduce any posts, so it really wouldn’t have any bearing on the overtime they’re experiencing,” Gailey said.

The inmate boarding agreement was formed in 2018 and was to span four months, but was renewed in 2019 and now will continue until the end of June. Both jails are down employees, but the proportion of openings in York County is more stark: About 27 positions are open out of 76 authorized positions. In Cumberland County, there are about 30 openings on a staff of about 140 corrections officers.

The York County Jail is also smaller, housing about 180 inmates as of the start of the year, while Cumberland County had a total jail population of about 370 people.

For years, both jails have struggled to hire and retain staff. Relatively low starting pay and a difficult working environment have made hiring and retaining new guards a challenge. Recently, a strong national economy and low unemployment statewide has made corrections work less attractive than other positions in the same pay range that do not require managing offenders and pre-trial detainees.

NCEU Local 110 President Dennis Welch said five corrections offices have been punished with one-day suspensions without pay for refusing to work a forced overtime shift in recent months. All the employees who have been disciplined have a history of working the mandatory overtime shifts without incident, but he said they refused on those days for personal reasons.

The number of forced overtime shifts is at its highest level since Welch started to work for the jail about 30 years ago, and appears on track to continue unabated. So far in January, there have been 80 forced overtime shifts, he said.

In one case, the corrections officer who refused the overtime shift had been forced over during his most recent previous shift, and he told the county he was too tired to work, Welch said. Another employee was forced over while he was sick and refused the overtime shift, Welch said. That officer went to a doctor and got a note confirming his illness, but the county still suspended him for one day without pay, Welch said.

“These people who refuse (shifts) have done force-overs before, and continue to do force-overs, but on these days, they had legit reasons,” Welch said. “We’ll take these right to arbitration.”

Joyce, the Cumberland County sheriff, confirmed the five disciplinary cases in an email, but did not specify the discipline handed out, citing personnel confidentiality rules. Regarding the other allegations, Joyce said he was “kind of shocked” at the 600 forced overtime shifts, and said he will research whether the union’s figures are correct.

A message requesting an interview with York County Sheriff William King Jr. was not returned Thursday evening.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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