Forced overtime roils the ranks of N.Y. jail deputies and officers
Erie County officers and deputies are refusing to volunteer for overtime like in the past; now, it's common for up to 80% of overtime to be forced
By Sandra Tan
The Buffalo News
ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — Corrections Officer Andrew Shanahan remembers the one-and-only time he refused an order to work overtime. The veteran Erie County Correctional Facility employee had been forced to work 16-hour shifts two days in a row in December. He had expected to work just an eight-hour shift on the third day.
The divorced father had promised his two young daughters that he would celebrate his birthday and watch the Bills game with them that night. He had not seen them in two weeks. Although his watch commander had assured him he could leave by early evening, Shanahan got late word that he would have to stay late for a third consecutive day.
Shanahan signed out and left anyway. His boss called him half an hour later and told him not to bother coming back.
"I was just a complete mess," Shanahan said. "I knew I had made a huge mistake, and I was just praying that I didn't get fired."
The amount of overtime hours at the correctional facility in Alden and the Holding Center in Buffalo has not changed much from year to year, but those hours are being assigned to a smaller pool of corrections officers and deputies who can be forced to work up to 32 hours in overtime every week.
Officers and deputies are refusing to volunteer for overtime like in the past. Now, it's common for up to 80% of overtime to be forced. So if employees can turn to sick time rules and regulations to avoid forced overtime, they will.
"We're turning good employees into bad employees," said Sheriff John Garcia.
The Erie County Sheriff's Office relies on overtime because it's cheaper than hiring more deputies and corrections officers with benefits. Erie County spent nearly $16 million to cover 229,000 hours of overtime last year. It seems improbable that jails with roughly 80% fewer inmates than a decade ago need to force overtime on employees to staff positions.
But that's the reality, Garcia said.
—The outdated physical layout of the jails and the proliferation of inmate classifications and programs make it impossible to staff them efficiently and still meet state staffing requirements even though inmate numbers have plummeted.
—Changes to the state retirement and pension system, including pension caps, limit using overtime to boost pensions, decreasing the incentive for some employees to volunteer for overtime shifts.
—Employees who have resigned or retired have not been replaced.
—More employees are taking advantage of sick time rules and the Family Medical Leave Act to avoid mandated overtime. That leaves more shifts to be staffed by fewer workers who do not invoke sick time or family leave rights.
"What am I left to say to our people who stand here in my office and say, 'But I haven't seen my kids?' " asked Christine Green, chief of operations for the correctional facility. "These are real life issues our people are up against."
The current staffing model impacts those like Shanahan, the 16-year corrections officer and former special education teacher who was suspended for seven days for walking off the job.
It also affects employee retention. The jails saw 21 staffers resign last year for reasons other than retirement, Garcia said. This year two quit their jobs that could easily have paid them $70,000 to $80,000 for the regular hours at an auto parts store.
Since last year, 34 jail deputies and corrections officers have quit their jobs. That is unusually high compared with prior years, administrators said. Part-time guards who would normally step in to fill gaps were eliminated in 2020 to save money during the Covid health crisis.
Jail work can be monotonous, yet dangerous, punctuated by moments of high stress dealing with inmate outbursts. Administrators and correction officers say divorce, alcoholism and drug problems are seen at a much higher rate among jail staff.
Holding Center Deputy Adam Drew, 41, heads to work some days knowing he may face four 16-hour shifts over five days because of forced overtime. He will spend a couple of hours each day with his wife and five children and sleep four or five hours when not working.
"I drank about a pot of coffee at my midnight shift to stay awake," he said. "But I know I'm a walking zombie."
Erie County jails housed 20,000 inmates a decade ago and 10,000 inmates less than three years ago, according to Sheriff's Office data. The jails may house less than half that number this year. But that doesn't mean staffing can be easily cut.
Despite fewer inmates, the number of inmate categories has increased, which dictates housing and staffing assignments. For example, the Alden facility features inmate housing pods with 24 or 48 rooms. But because of how inmates are classified by risk level and program area, there may be only a handful of inmates with the same classification occupying the entire housing area. Whether the pod contains four inmates or 48, one corrections officer is still required to staff it.
And while the number of inmates fell 80% over the decade, the jails added more than 30 programs, although many of them have been suspended due to Covid restrictions and insufficient staffing, according to the Sheriff's Office. But recent mandates to reduce solitary confinement on top of programs for addiction treatment add to staffing pressures.
Moreover, the physical layout of the jails require a certain level of staffing, according to the state Commission of Correction, which has criticized the Sheriff's Office for inadequate staffing in the past.
Because of the inefficient design, inmates on suicide watch typically have a single deputy assigned to one-on-one constant observation at the Alden Correctional Facility and one-on-two observation at the Holding Center.
With a modern jail, Garcia said he would need only half the current staff to fill posts. But that's not what the county has.
Use or abuse?
The use of the Family Medical Leave Act has prompted concern among administrators and created friction among jailhouse colleagues.
The family leave law provides employees up to 12 weeks of time off for serious illnesses or to care for a family member. Corrections officers and deputies have applied the benefit, which requires a doctor's signoff and Personnel Department approval, for diagnoses ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression.
But now, administrators and even employees contend the benefit is being abused to get days off. Those who use it can still be paid through their sick time or vacation time banks. Roughly a quarter or more of corrections officers and Holding Center deputies — 136 — have claimed time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, according to the Sheriff's Office.
As more officers see their colleagues use family leave to work fewer hours, some officers say, those who remain either take an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach or they grow resentful.
"I have 15 less friends at the jail now than I had six months ago," said Shanahan, who believes some are gaming the system. "I'll never be that guy."
Garcia said it's suspicious that someone could refuse mandatory overtime by invoking the Family Medical Leave Act, still get paid sick time or vacation time and then be allowed to volunteer to work overtime the next day. In light of low morale, he said he's reluctant to talk about more aggressive efforts to hold employees accountable if they fake illness, but it's happening.
That includes home checks and doctor's note requirements, Garcia said.
"We're going to start watching people," he said. "And if you're on FMLA and you can't work here, and you're working somewhere else as a handyman — roofing, landscaping, whatever you're doing — you're going to be brought up on charges and fired."
No easy fix
The high levels of forced overtime shouldered by a dwindling pool of available officers and deputies keep the county jails operating.
"That is one of those self-perpetuating, self-compounding problems," said Jeff Hartman, chief of operations at the Holding Center.
Some say the Sheriff's Office is violating legitimate use of family leave. At the correctional facility, seven grievances have been filed over family leave and a lawsuit has been filed against the Sheriff's Office.
Because jails must be staffed around the clock without exception, it can be extraordinarily difficult for employees to be guaranteed a day off when unexpected or important family and personal obligations come up, said John DiMartino, president of the Civil Service Employees Union representing the correctional facility officers.
Employees can try to swap vacation days or shifts, but that's not always successful, he said. Even though employees are given six passes a year specifically for this purpose, employees said, the jails can be so understaffed that the passes get denied.
Calling in sick or taking family leave is sometimes the only way to guarantee a personal day off, employees said.
In past years, jail staff said, every officer was expected to work one or two shifts of mandated overtime a week, more during the summer vacation months. When Covid struck and courts and jail programs were closed, overtime even plummeted.
But now, they said, there's rarely a break from the expectation to work three or four double shifts a week.
"We have a lot of officers making a six-figure salary who don't want that salary," said Green, the correctional facility chief. "We are forcing these people to make $100,000 a year."
Garcia has pressed elected county officials about the need for more employees, on the jail and road patrol sides.
He laid out plans to reactivate and expand jail programs to lower the number of repeat offenders, and provide more training for both jail staff and road patrol deputies, such as de-escalation and crisis intervention training.
But he eased his push to get the County Legislature to greenlight additional hires when he realized he couldn't fill the 32 open jobs he already had.
The Sheriff's Office had sent letters to 42 candidates who had passed the civil service exam to begin the hiring process, which includes physical agility and psychological assessments. He expected to fill a police academy class starting this week.
The sheriff, however, ended up with only four qualified candidates. Many failed the physical and psychological assessments. Others failed background checks.
Green, the chief of operations at the correctional facility, said that of the candidates she reviewed, one had been arrested four times for fraud, one was an admitted cocaine user and another was arrested twice for driving while intoxicated.
Garcia has now delayed the start of the police academy until September. But he hired the four applicants who were qualified and will start them with on-site training.
He's also going to push to restore the part-time positions.
"I'm not going to take just anybody," he said.