Mo. readies budget to pay long-sought settlement to prison workers

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved spending $49.5 million to end a lawsuit brought by COs for unpaid overtime


By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
        
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Current and former prison guards in Missouri could see the results of a long-running dispute over their wages under a potential settlement agreement being considered by state lawmakers.

As part of an unfolding budget plan, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved spending $49.5 million to end a lawsuit brought by corrections officers for unpaid overtime.

Talks have been underway for more than two years after a Cole County jury in 2018 ordered the state to pay $113.7 million to thousands of employees at the Missouri Department of Corrections.

"We are in mediation and we think this will get finalized really quickly," state Budget Director Dan Haug told the panel.

In addition to paying the guards, the state was required to install a timekeeping system to better track hours worked by the officers.

The case, which began in 2012, alleged the Department of Corrections did not pay guards for work done once they arrived at their prison.

Most officers are stationed within a prison's "security envelope," meaning they have to go through a search and a metal detector, turn over cellphones, tablets and any personal property, and are in uniform and in close proximity to prisoners, or "on duty and expected to respond," the whole time.

The guards also spend time each day on exit procedures, communicating with the next shift and taking inventory of weapons, ammunition and equipment in the case of vehicle patrol officers.

At the time of the verdict, the average corrections officer would have received at least $5,000 from the judgment. Guards who have served for a longer period of time could have gotten as much as $34,000.

The case had been sent back to the lower court to fine-tune the monetary award process and had been set for a hearing in June.

The Supreme Court ruling noted that a circuit court judge should review each of the work activities done by the officers to determine when the clock should begin ticking on their pay.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections did not comment on the pending agreement.

"The settlement hasn't yet been finalized, so we can't comment on any of the details at this point," said Karen Pojmann.

Attorney Gary Burger, who represents the guards, also declined to comment.

If the money is approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Mike Parson, it would be available in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The case highlighted a series of big-ticket judgments against prison system administrators, ranging from work conditions to discrimination claims.

In 2017, the total amount paid out of the state's legal expense fund was $25 million. An additional $28 million was paid out in 2018, with the 2019 total at $24.2 million.

The cost of lawsuits against the state has been an issue in recent years for state budget writers, who must set aside money for legal expenses rather than steer those dollars into schools, social services and other state programs.
    
(c)2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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