Thousands of Mo. COs to get settlement for unpaid overtime lawsuit

COs successfully argued that the state DOC failed to pay them for work done once they arrived at their prison for the beginning of their shifts


By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Thousands of Missouri prison guards will begin receiving settlement checks this week as part of a decadelong lawsuit involving overtime pay.

In a case that began in 2012 and went to the Missouri Supreme Court, correctional officers successfully argued that the state Department of Corrections failed to pay them for work done once they arrived at their prison for the beginning of their shifts.

According to St. Louis attorney Gary Burger, who handled the case, checks are being sent to 22,000 current and former officers.

The payouts are averaging $900, with some guards getting up to $4,900. Burger said 80% of the money is being distributed now with the remaining 20% coming in February.

Going forward, all current officers will receive an extra 15 minutes a day in compensatory time for the next eight years.

That amounts to an extra $54 million that the state will have to pay out over time.

Burger's law firm will receive $16 million, as well as $1.7 million in each of the next eight years to monitor the department's compliance.

The judge handling the case cleared that decision after extensive talks involving a mediator.

"The amount of attorneys' fees awarded from the settlement is fair and reasonable," wrote Cole County Judge Cotton Walker.

Tim Cutt, a correctional officer at the state lock-up in California, Mo., who also serves as director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said he's heard grumbling from rank-and-file guards about the money they are receiving versus what Burger's firm is getting.

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"I don't care what he gets out of it," Cutt told the Post-Dispatch. "They proved the state violated our labor agreement."

"The people who want to complain about what we got, I tell them we could have just walked out of there with a little extra comp time," Cutt said.

The route to getting the settlement checks mailed began three years ago after a Cole County jury ordered the state to pay $113.7 million to compensate current and former workers.

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.

The state appealed the jury award to the Missouri Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court to fine-tune the monetary award process.

The Supreme Court ruling noted that the 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.

That review resulted in the $49.5 million final settlement, which was approved by Walker in October.

In a post on his firm's website, Burger outlined why they accepted a lower amount than the jury had awarded.

"We had a risk of loss, risk that the court would find some activities not compensable, that a jury would not give a large amount and that the state retained significant immunity defenses," Burger said.

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