Pandemic adds to staffing crisis, forced overtime in Maine jails

Corrections officers at the state's largest jail are embroiled in negotiations for their first contract


By Megan Gray
Portland Press Herald

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Maine — David Skibitsky was tired.

He was working the second shift as an intake officer at the Cumberland County Jail, booking people who come in between 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. The night before, the jail didn’t have enough staff for the third shift, so his supervisors said he needed to stay until 7 a.m. He was exhausted when he got home to Waterboro that morning, but he barely slept before he needed to return to the jail that afternoon.

Then, his supervisors told him he needed to stay for another unplanned double.

“It felt like I had alcohol in my system,” Skibitsky, 39, said. “I felt disoriented. I was sluggish. I was not safe to be working.”

Skibitsky, who is also his union’s chief steward, refused to stay. Later, he said he learned that he would be suspended for two days without pay as a penalty. That incident took place in late spring, and he gave his notice just weeks later, walking away from a job he had worked for more than 16 years.

Across the country, shortages of corrections officers have made overtime an industry norm, cost taxpayers money and fueled concerns about safety. Overtime this year at the Cumberland County Jail equates to nearly $15 on the tax bill for the owner of a $300,000 home. Long hours at the jail came under scrutiny last year when a guard allegedly fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from a voluntary double shift, crashed into a family’s SUV and killed a young girl.

Now, corrections officers at the state’s largest jail are embroiled in negotiations for their first contract since that fatal crash. Union leaders started speaking out about mandatory overtime in January, and since then, the coronavirus pandemic has only increased the number of forced shifts and exacerbated their dispute with the sheriff’s office.

“There’s no end in sight. Our officers are tired,” said Daren Smith, vice president of Local 110 of the National Correctional Employees Union, which represents officers in Cumberland County.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he had agreed not to speak publicly about topics that were on the bargaining table. But he said nearly one third of the roughly 130 positions for corrections officers are vacant, and the forced overtime is necessary to meet minimum staffing levels.

“I can’t close the jail,” Joyce said. “I’ve got to keep it open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I can’t stand at the door and say, ‘We’re full,’ or, ‘I’m not taking any more because we’re down 37 people.’”

The union says one solution is increasing pay for corrections officers – the starting rate at Cumberland County Jail is $19.02 an hour, the highest in the state – in hopes of attracting candidates for vacant positions. But the county jails have been wrestling with budget shortfalls for years. Public officials are also facing more pressure to spend money on social services instead of law enforcement and to reduce the number of incarcerated people.

As the dispute continues, Joyce said the jail is safe for both inmates and employees, although he might need to cut programs to stretch his budget further. Joyce said he could not reveal his minimum staffing levels for security reasons.

Bill Doyle, the regional director for the union, said fatigue for guards is making the jail more dangerous, but he does not track any data that could support that claim.

The overtime can be an added strain on people working an already stressful job.

Dr. Amy Lerman, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California Berkeley, conducted a wide-ranging survey of California correctional officers in 2017. In her research, people who worked in jails and prisons reported negative impacts on their physical and mental health.

Good wages are important, she said, but so is the nature of the work itself. Her survey of more than 8,000 people found that less than half agreed that they have a positive influence on others through their work.

“I think there’s any number of – particularly young – officers who would like to have more positive institutions, to feel like they were accomplishing a more useful and rehabilitative role,” Lerman said.

STAFFING SHORTAGES

Experts said other states are also wrestling with staffing shortages, although there are no national data on vacancies in corrections. Inmates are fighting a federal class-action lawsuit in Ohio, where they claimed understaffing and overcrowding was making the jails unsafe and creating civil rights violations. In Mississippi prisons, a shortage of corrections officers has allowed for violence among inmates and guards.

Those shortages have made overtime part of the culture in corrections. In Cumberland County, like most jails, officers can request to work extra shifts that are known to be open in advance. But officers can also be ordered to work overtime if the jail is understaffed, and union leaders have been saying for months that those extra shifts are causing turmoil.

At the jail in Portland, officers have already worked more forced overtime shifts this year than all of last year, a consequence of vacancies and coronavirus protocols.

In 2019, the union counted at least 628 instances of forced overtime. This year, that number was already at 892 by the first weekend of August. The jail reported slightly higher numbers for those shifts than the union did, which the sheriff said averaged 5 1/2 hours. Union leaders also said six guards who refused the second shifts have been disciplined this year, suspended for at least one day without pay.

No one could provide comparable data for the number of voluntary overtime shifts, but both the sheriff and a union representative agreed that officers sign up for extra hours more often than they are forced to cover open shifts.

Overtime, both forced and voluntary, now represents more than 10 percent of the jail’s spending. The Cumberland County Jail budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was more than $20 million, with more than $14 million going to personnel costs. The jail planned to spend $1.4 million on overtime, but officials said the total cost ended up at nearly $2.5 million because of vacancies. The jail administrator said savings from the line item for employee insurance offset the added expense.

Overtime cost the jail $2.2 million the year before, which was also higher than the budgeted amount by more than $1 million. The line item equates to nearly $15 out of a $200 county tax bill for the owner of a $300,000 home.

In Maine, union leaders said York and Cumberland counties have the most dire staffing shortages. In Cumberland County, the sheriff reported 37 vacancies out of 127 corrections officers earlier this month, nearly one third of the budgeted positions. And in York County, nearly half — 35 out of 76 — of the corrections jobs were vacant.

As a result, York County now boards up to 30 inmates in Cumberland County, at a daily cost of $65 per person. That solution has reduced the need for forced overtime in York County, but it has also been a source of conflict. The National Correctional Employees Union, which represents employees in both counties, asked the counties to cancel that contract because Cumberland County is also short-staffed. But Joyce has said canceling wouldn’t actually reduce the need for forced overtime because the number of impacted inmates is small.

Both the sheriff and the union agree, however, that the pandemic has put a new strain on the jail staff.

Early on in the pandemic, county jails actively reduced their populations, hoping to reduce the risks of an outbreak. More than 1,600 people were incarcerated in Maine jails in January. By May, that number dipped below 1,000, a 40 percent reduction from the start of the year.

That change didn’t reduce the need for forced overtime in Cumberland County, where the jail opened a housing unit to create a quarantine unit. The state also reported an outbreak at the Cumberland County Jail in July because three inmates tested positive for the disease.

Doyle, the regional director of the National Correctional Employees Union, said the county put 17 members on leave so they could quarantine and get their own tests. As a result, Doyle said he counted 91 forced overtime shifts during the first nine days of July.

“The low numbers don’t necessarily correlate to reducing housing units or reducing staff,” he said.

The bargaining unit in York County doesn’t track forced overtime in the same way, but an outbreak this month has infected at least 16 officers on an already depleted staff. The sheriff said on Friday that he wants to relax the restrictions on overtime – total hours are currently capped at 72 per week – but Doyle said the union hadn’t agreed to that yet.

In recent weeks, the number of jailed people has ticked up again, surpassing 1,300 by August. And even in the Cumberland County Jail, which does not have a current outbreak like its neighbor, the sheriff can’t close the quarantine unit while the virus is still a threat.

“COVID has changed the way we’ve had to do business. … To do anything different would have been reckless on our part,” Joyce said.

The sheriff and the union both said they need to hire more corrections officers to reduce the forced overtime. Doyle said a higher wage is necessary to attract and keep officers. Neither the sheriff nor the union would talk about their ongoing contract negotiations, but both admitted that pay is an issue on the table.

Skibitsky estimated that he was forced to work overtime a dozen times between January and August. To him, the extra money wasn’t worth the canceled plans or the weekend hours lost to catch up on sleep. He felt guilty about quitting because he knew his position would not be filled quickly, but he decided he needed a change.

“A lot of people take pride in being a corrections officer, myself included,” Skibitsky said. “But to a point, you can only take so much before it wears on you.”

FUNDING FORMULA

In the background of this debate is a long struggle over jail funding.

The 15 county jails in Maine cost more than $90 million annually. The state contributes only a small portion – this fiscal year, $18.4 million – and the rest falls on the counties. But state law also sets a cap on how much tax revenue the counties can put toward their jails.

A group of lawmakers studied this issue last year and wrote a bill that would tweak that funding formula. The bill could put the state on the hook for the cost of jailing certain people, including those who are awaiting trial on felony charges. Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat who worked on L.D. 973 on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that change could be a financial boost for the counties.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has also changed the conversation about spending on police and jails. National and local advocates are calling for governments to redirect money from law enforcement to social services. That shift could reduce the number of incarcerated people, which could in turn reduce the number of corrections officers needed.

To the union, the answer is still more dollars for the jails themselves.

“I think most corrections officers will tell you that if we want to get out of the business of warehousing inmates, which is what we’re in, and actually get to programs and rehabilitation, then more money has to be put into corrections as a whole,” Doyle said.

But for Warren, the response is L.D. 803, another bill that would dedicate $4.4 million to mental health services. That money would go in part to mobile crisis units and crisis stabilization units, which would be alternatives for people who too often end up in jail.

“I would think every person in Maine would want to send less people to our county jails,” Warren said. “It is expensive, and it is not effective to correcting behavior in most cases.”

Joyce also said crisis stabilization units could be critical to reducing the demands on jails. But he cautioned that solution will cost time and money.

“Can you just flip a switch and take $30,000 or $3 million from a law enforcement agency and create this stabilization unit?” Joyce said. “No.”

“There are ways that you could build a system that could knock law enforcement pretty much out of the mental health problems,” he added. “We would have resources (for people who need them), and you might be able to save money in the jail. But you have to build the infrastructure.”

Skibitsky sought out his next career in mental health services because of his experiences at the jail. He said he is excited to help people in his new job at Saco River Health Services, even though he is taking a pay cut of roughly $2 an hour.

“Throwing money to law enforcement is great for the immediate future, but the long-term future is supporting the field surrounding law enforcement, surrounding people’s daily lives,” Skibitsky said. “There’s only a limited amount of money out there. Where do we want to focus these resources?”

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©2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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