Pa. prison on track to surpass $5M in overtime
CO staffing is running at 80% of its full complement to protect and secure the 500 or more inmates at Westmoreland County Prison
By Rich Cholodofsky
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.
GREENSBURG, Pa. — Ryan Perry and his co-workers know there is no other choice but to take on extra shifts to ensure the Westmoreland County Prison has enough guards on duty each day.
Along with that mandatory overtime comes a financial windfall — but also a struggle to maintain a work-life balance.
“It’s a little more frequent than some would like, and it’s taken a toll on a lot of people who want to be home with their families,” said Perry, who serves as acting president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 522, the union that represents guards at the lockup.
Guard staffing is running at 80% of its full complement to protect and secure the 500 or more inmates at the Hempfield facility.
As a result, guards and other staffers there accounted for more than 27% of the $5 million in overtime paid to county employees in 2022. The $1.38 million in overtime spent to operate the jail was $563,000 more than the next highest department, according to payroll figures. Emergency 911 dispatchers were paid more than $816,000 in overtime, and nurses at Westmoreland Manor received $695,000 last year for extra hours worked.
Through the first three months of 2023, the county has paid more than $374,000 in overtime to jail guards. At the start of April, nearly $1.37 million in overtime had been paid out to all county workers this year. At the current pace, overtime will top $5.4 million by the end of December.
All three departments operate around the clock, and each has had its struggles filling out an employee roster. Human resources Director Alexis Bevan said there are more than 215 job openings in the county, with the jail, 911 dispatch center and Westmoreland Manor at the top of the list.
When fully staffed, the jail operates with 159 guards. Thirty-one positions are vacant.
That shortfall has led to overtime mandates. Some guards have been required to work back-to-back eight-hour shifts, Warden Bryan Kline said.
“You do have to stay alert, but I don’t foresee any safety concerns with that. It’s a public safety issue because we have to be staffed 24 hours a day,” Kline said.
For some, the overtime has been a windfall. Six of the county’s top 10 overtime earners last year were jail guards. Joseph Cuneo, a senior guard who has worked at the facility since 1994, earned more than $101,500 in overtime, nearly tripling his annual base salary, set at $59,134 this year. Guard David Tucci, on staff since 1993, augmented his $61,859 annual salary with an additional $80,533 in overtime last year.
Officials attributed the recent overtime spike at the jail to a change enacted in 2021 to do away with part-time guard positions. County officials instead hired more full-time guards to attract more potential recruits for jobs that carry a more reliable work schedule as well as health and retirement benefits.
“Part-timers were used as relief when somebody was off sick or on vacation. Now there’s nobody to come in for you,” Perry said while acknowledging many appreciate the potential to earn extra pay. “We want as much work-life balance as possible, but somebody’s got to (work overtime).”
Finding enough staff to operate the jail has been a challenge for the past several years. There has been a revolving door with hires, resignations and terminations. Last week, county commissioners approved the resignations of three guards and fired another.
Meanwhile, guards have been working since January without a contract. The union’s four-year labor deal expired at the end of December. Perry said mandated overtime has been a sticking point in the ongoing negotiations.
Overtime paid to guards has increased steadily since 2019, when about $500,000 was paid to staffers. Staffing issues in 2020 and 2021 related to the coronavirus pandemic led to additional benefits being paid. Pandemic-related benefits were halted last year.
County Commissioner Doug Chew, who serves as chairman of the prison board, said staffing challenges have impacted all county departments.
“We are monitoring the financial and human impacts in every department. The financial impact is lessened by the vacant positions we have. A vacant position translates to no salary or benefit charges. A filled position receives benefits, so the overtime in many examples is neutral,” Chew said.
The county paid $3.8 million in overtime in 2019.
The jail is not the only department in which employees face mandatory overtime requirements.
Staff shortages have impacted operations at the county’s 911 dispatch center, where call-takers work 12-hour shifts but at times are required to pick up additional hours to make up for vacancies.
“We have to keep the seats filled,” said public safety Director Roland “Bud” Mertz.
Mertz said job vacancies account for a portion of the overtime. Additional dispatchers are required at times to deal with expected high call volumes in times of emergency.
In early April, the 911 center fielded more than 1,700 calls in a three-hour period during a high-wind event. The center on average receives about 850 calls a day.
“We usually have about 10 to 12 people on a shift, but when we had that high-wind event, we called on people on their day off to come in,” Mertz said. “This is a nationwide problem with people not wanting to be (dispatchers). It’s a different job and makes it difficult to recruit.”
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