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IDOC investigates $60M in overtime for correctional officers

Prison administration says the primary cause of this expense is a requirement to pay time-and-a-half when COs and other key employees call in sick or are on leaves of absence

By George Pawlaczyk
Belleville News-Democrat

BELLEVILLE — Figuring out what generates the bulk of the multimillion dollar annual cost of overtime in Illinois’ prison system depends on who you ask.

The prison administration says the primary cause of this expense -- more than $60 million for all reasons last year -- is a requirement to pay time-and-a-half when guards and other key employees call in sick or are on leaves of absence.

The union says overtime costs are driven by a chronic failure to adequately staff the 48,300-inmate system, particularly when it comes to guard positions.

Statements from the top spokesman for each side illustrated a wide gap when it comes to defining the root cause of overtime pay.

One sick call episode at a maximum security prison a few months ago raised concerns for management.

During the span of five consecutive work shifts during the New Year’s holiday, 407 calls were made by workers at the maximum security Stateville Correctional Center who said they were unable show up for work at the prison near Chicago, according to figures from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

For each sick call by a guard, a substitute had to be brought in on overtime. Stateville employees who called in sick during this time caused an overall increase of $83,400 for overtime, according to the data. About 4,000 inmates are housed at Stateville and there 905 guards and supervisors.

Another overtime concern involves the maximum security Menard Correctional Center in Chester, where a sergeant of guards paid a salary of $72,300 has been allowed to work full time for two years as the prison’s union representative and wear civilian clothes. His guard job was covered with overtime paid to other correctional officers. That cost $100,000 last year, according to data from IDOC.

Following inquiries by the Belleville News-Democrat, the union representative, Kevin Hirsch, will be required by IDOC Director Salvador A. Godinez to be in uniform at work and available for guard duty if needed, a state spokesman said. Hirsch could not be reached for comment.

“The cost of overtime is primarily driven by the number of call ins,” by employees who don’t show up for work, IDOC spokesman Tom Shaer said.

“IDOC knows our fine employees may need sick time and other leave, and we are not saying all sick leave is abusive ... We feel the unacceptably high number of call-ins at Stateville were unfair to the purpose of sick time, which we endorse,” Shaer said.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents the prison employees, said most of the cost of overtime is caused by not having enough employees.

“Lack of staff is the primary reason,” Lindall gave as the main cause for overtime, noting that in 2002, the prison system employed 17,000 workers compared to less than 11,000 today.

“Most prisons lack adequate staff to fill their shifts without overtime even if zero employees were absent for any reason ... The union has worked for years to reduce overtime of any type, because of the strain overtime places on employees in an already difficult and dangerous job,” Lindall wrote.

“Employees who volunteer to work overtime are exemplary public servants who are willing to put the safety of state prisons, their co-workers and the public ahead of their own family time, sleep and health.”

Citing the 407 calls-ins during the New Year’s Holiday at Stateville, Lindall said “you have to understand that Stateville is one of many facilities that simply doesn’t have enough staff to cover the mandatory posts on each shift -- it relies on employees working overtime almost every shift, every day.”

Lindall said the area received heavy snowfall during that time and questioned whether the calls in were all for sick time, or whether ongoing absences for medical leave and other reasons may have been mixed in.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the Stateville area for New Year’s Eve.

As for the overtime needed to fill in the guard slot that must be kept open for Hirsch, Lindall said “to complain about the cost of one position at one facility when IDOC spent more than $60 million on overtime last year is laughable and to blame the union that has consistently advocated to reduce overtime is insulting and false.”

“Overtime is almost always voluntary, based on seniority, but AFSCME has falsely claimed that safety and security are reduced because officers are, ‘tired from working too much overtime,’” Shaer said.

Overtime actually has to be limited, Shaer said, because of a contractual requirement so certain guards do not work more hours than is considered safe.

Another factor that generates overtime involves LOAs, or leaves of absence. Here again, the administration and the union are at odds.

According to data supplied by Shaer, leaves are granted because of transfer to another state job, injuries due to inmate attacks, non-service injuries, service connected injury not due to inmate attack, family emergencies and military service.

It is not something that can be planned for “because with most LOAs we have no idea when the officer or employee will return.”

At Stateville, 107 positions are open because of LOAs including 56 employees out for a non-service injury, 39 for an on the job injury and 4 due to being injured by an inmate, according to data provided by the agency.

At Menard, which houses about 3,200 inmates, 45 positions are open because of LOAs including 26 employees out for a non-service connected injury, seven for a service-connected injury and two because of injury by an inmate. Menard has 638 guards and supervisors.

Shaer said that in most cases, jobs made vacant because of an LOA must be filled with overtime pay and replacements are not allowed.

Lindall said that is not true.

“Only positions held by employees on short-term leave must be held open,” he said. “Nothing prevents the department from filling the positions of employees on mid- or long-term leaves, except IDOC’s own inability to hire staff and effectively manage its rosters.”

As for the overtime generated by paying overtime to fill in for some LOAs, he said: “IDOC like any other employer is well aware of employees on family or medical leave, disability, military deployment or any other form of extended absence. Responsible employers would have enough staff to function without overreliance on overtime.”

The Menard prison was hit especially hard with LOAs when hundreds of guards and even its former warden filed disability claims alleging that turning keys and operating out of date locking mechanisms caused repetitive trauma injuries, usually carpal tunnel syndrome. The former warden, Dave Rednour, attributed his injury to typing on a keyboard.

The BND reported in 2011 that at least 260 Menard guards filed repetitive trauma claims for three years that cost taxpayers more than $10 million in claims. The newspaper did not calculate the total overtime to temporarily replace guards who went on temporary total disability to recover from minor repetitive trauma surgery.

Experts on jail and prison administration contacted by the BND stated that sick calls generate most prison overtime.

“If you have a jail and you need 20 people to run it and three call in sick, that means if you don’t pay overtime you can’t run it and be safe,” said Richard Lichten, a California-based consultant with 30 years of experience in police and jail tactics.

Tim Gravette, of Gravette Consulting in Lafayette, La., said, “I can’t give you a blanket answer for overtime because there isn’t one, but it almost always is due to sick calls.”

Gravette, a former associate warden at a federal prison, added, “If they call in sick you can’t really argue with them that they’re not ... It’s a constant. You have to operate safely and for that you have to pay overtime.”

Shaer said IDOC is predicting a $7 million decrease in overtime in 2014 partially through gaining additional guards from the closing of the supermax Tamms Correctional Center and the women’s prison at Dwight, “for a full fiscal year.”

As for the union’s stated efforts to reduce overtime, Lindall, the Council 31 spokesman, said, “In addition to encouraging IDOC to hire adequate staff to reduce mandatory overtime, AFSCME has worked together with IDOC,” to create improved policies for overtime as well as, "... swap programs that allow employees to trade shifts with other employees.”