Mich. union: 734 openings for corrections officers is unacceptable
COs work mandatory overtime, which costs taxpayers additional money and causes additional stress for employees, the union president said
By Marie Weidmayer
BLACKMAN TWP., Mich. — Corrections officers protested for additional staff near the Jackson prisons Thursday afternoon.
Around 20 people gathered at the intersection of Cooper Street and W. Parnall Road at 1 p.m., Sept. 3, to ask Michigan Department of Corrections Director Hedi Washington to hire additional prison staff.
“We are here because of an ongoing, long term staffing shortage at the correctional officer level,” Michigan Corrections Organization President Byrum Osborn said. “That’s a significant percentage of the staff.”
Numerous vehicles driving through the intersection honked to show support for the union members as people held signs saying “MDOC fails officers” and “Unsafe conditions.”
“We agree that we need to have more corrections officers,” MDOC Public Information Officer Chris Gautz said.
There are 734 open positions, which is about 12 percent of employees, Gautz said. That number fluctuates from year to year, depending on the number of people who leave the job.
Officers work mandatory overtime, which costs taxpayers additional money and causes additional stress for employees, Osborn said.
The novel coronavirus has compounded the issue, but the staffing issue existed for years before the start of the pandemic, Osborn said.
It did not improve when Washington was hired as director in 2015, Osborn said. She and her staff have not successfully addressed the issues with recruiting and retaining officers, he said.
Osborn said Washington needs to resign. Protesters held signs asking for the same thing.
Retired MDOC officer Pam Eladrew said she was at the protest because she knows the potential danger of working in the prisons. She said she retired in 2015, right as the staffing shortages started to get worse.
“Lansing is very much aware of it and isn’t doing anything,” Eladrew said. “You can’t be safe for yourself, your fellow officers and inmates.”
Before Washington took the job, officers needed to pay to attend community college for certification before they joined MDOC. Washington changed the program so people receive training once they are hired – what the union asked for, Gautz said.
“She completely revamped the recruitment and has a laser like focus on it throughout her tenure,” Gautz said. “The issue is Michigan is not unique to the issue of corrections officers shortages. … We’re kind of right in the middle (of other states).”
The COVID-19 pandemic paused training for new officers this spring, which helped continue the shortage, Gautz said. Another issue is employees who refuse to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, he said.
When officers fail to wear masks and social distance, they’re forced to stay home for 10 days after someone they’ve been in contact with tests positive for the coronavirus, Gautz said. Since March, MDOC has had more than 400 employees forced to quarantine for 10 days.
“Our officers do amazingly difficult jobs, on top of that during an amazingly difficult and once-in-a-lifetime time that they’re doing this in,” Gautz said. “They do hard work. All that we’re asking is those that are doing it think about that it think about their colleagues and their families that they go home to. When they don’t wear their masks and follow the rules, it causes burdens on everyone else and potential life altering issues if they test positive.”
A total of 114 officers will start at various prisons on Monday after they graduate this week, Gautz said. Of those, 11 will work at Jackson. An additional 950 officers can be hired by fall 2021 if the state approves the request for a budget increase.
Union members also have protested in Muskegon and Detroit in the last week, and another protest is being planned for Marquette.
©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.