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Hawaii COs testify against DPS leader during confirmation hearing

“Alarmingly low morale” and continuous long overtime shifts cited by COs



By Dan Nakaso
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — The confirmation hearing for Tommy Johnson to lead the state Department of Public Safety revealed a deep and complex rift between guards and the department over chronic staff shortages, absences and overtime.

The confirmation hearing for Tommy Johnson to lead the state Department of Public Safety revealed a deep and complex rift between guards and the department over chronic staff shortages, absences and overtime.

Adult correctional officers at Hawaii’s eight prisons and jails get 168 hours of vacation and 168 hours of sick leave, which Johnson called “the best benefit package in the nation.”

Along with unpaid federal family leave, the result is that the average ACO works only seven months a year, he said. Hawaii also leads the nation in ACOs who are eligible for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, he said.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety and Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, responded, “I find it astonishing that we have ACOs that may only work seven months out of the year because they’re gaming the entire process here.” The committee unanimously voted Wednesday to recommend Johnson be confirmed by the full Senate.

The United Public Workers Union, which represents ACOs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Johnson’s testimony.

Johnson is the fourth of Gov. Josh Green’s Cabinet nominees awaiting a vote by the full Senate after being recommended for confirmation.

On March 30 the Senate voted 23-1 to confirm Dawn Chang to run the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. She is Green’s ninth Cabinet nominee to be confirmed out of 20, and the first Native Hawaiian woman to lead DLNR.

Johnson previously served as a youth corrections officer at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, 16 years as administrator of the Hawaii Paroling Authority and for five years as deputy director of corrections.

The Department of Public Safety has 1, 535 authorized ACO positions, but only 1, 230—or 80 %—are filled, Johnson told the committee.

Out of the 1, 230 ACOs, Johnson said 434 of them—or 35 %—have been approved by their doctors to be eligible for FMLA, meaning “they can use that anytime to say, ‘I can’t stay (at work )’ or ‘I’m not coming to work.’”

Because critical ACO positions have to be staffed 24 hours a day, the result is that other ACOs regularly work mandatory 16-and 24-hour shifts on overtime.

“There’s some manipulation going on, " Johnson said. “We need to even out the required mandatory overtime as much as possible. But at the same time we need to fill the positions.”

At Johnson’s confirmation hearing, several veteran ACOs and sergeants unanimously testified against Johnson’s confirmation, including one who said he had just gotten off of a 16-hour shift.

Some also said their critical testimony would likely result in retaliation.

In written opposition to Johnson’s confirmation, Sgt. Tuufuli A. Uperesa—an ACO at the Women’s Community Correctional Center—said that “continuous staffing shortages and the resulting increase in assigning ACOs to long shifts have led to alarmingly low morale.”

Kalani Werner, UPW state director, wrote in opposition to Johnson’s confirmation that “the greatest concern for our members is the department’s vacancy rate for authorized ACO positions, which toward the end of 2022 was nearly 30 %.”

“These staffing shortages result in mandatory overtime which are commonly for 16-and 24-hour shifts, " Werner wrote. “While not typical, 32-and 48-hour shifts are becoming more frequent. Such long shifts can significantly impact ACO safety, as well as inmate safety, when fatigue sets in and diminishes cognitive and physical functioning. Despite these challenges, ACOs can possibly face disciplinary action if they are unable to perform their assigned duties.”

Johnson told the Senate committee that so many ACOs are regularly absent that the state Department of Human Resources Development cannot even conduct a pilot project to determine necessary staffing levels.

He met with Werner, and they’ve discussed possibilities to reduce “mandatory overtime as much as possible, but at the same time we need to fill the positions, " Johnson said.

He said he is willing to work with UPW to change ACO work hours—such as 10-hour or 12-hour shifts—but only if it reduces overtime and absenteeism.

At the same time, the Department of Public Safety is working to get more new ACOs graduated and “on the floor, " according to Johnson.

DPS saw 59 graduates in 2018, 36 in 2019, 37 in 2020, 61 in 2021 despite COVID-19, 96 in 2022 and 12 more pending so far this year with two more classes coming in 2023.

The Human Resources department has predicted a “silver tsunami " of ACO retirements, Johnson said.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the vacancy issue, " he said.

He’s also trying to reduce ACO training by two weeks and change physical standards to make it easier to get new ACOs on the job faster.

Johnson also said he’s willing to consider hiring bonuses, with half to be paid after new ACOs have been on the job for a year.

“It has to be tied to attendance, " he said.

------Staff writer Andrew Gomes contributed to this report.


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