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N.Y. county plans to change retirement incentives, eliminate civil service test to boost recruitment

Instead of the test for Erie County facilities, individuals can complete an online “training and experience” application that awards points for different levels of educational attainment and work experience

Erie County Correctional Facility NY

Union employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new agreement to retroactively change the pension program for officers and deputies so that they qualify for full pensions and benefits after 25 years.

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By Sandra Tan
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A costly new deal struck with the Erie County executive, Erie County sheriff and unions representing employees at the two county jails is expected to be a game-changer for the recruitment and retention of jail deputies, where excessive overtime has been an ongoing concern.

It’s going to cost the county more than $12 million in retroactive pension costs, and nearly $2 million a year going forward, assuming the Erie County Legislature approves the deal.

But county officials say the short staffing and forced overtime situation needs a more permanent solution. Aside from pension changes, the county has also lowered the hiring bar by relaxing civil service testing requirements and received some concessions that county officials say should mitigate costs going forward.

“This agreement was negotiated in good faith by all parties and is not only a strong agreement for the affected employees that realizes a long-sought goal of a 25-year retirement plan but is also a prudently budgeted move that is cognizant of the fiscal realities faced by Erie County ,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz .

The funding and staffing of the county Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden is often controversial, with high personnel costs and climbing overtime expenses despite a declining number of inmates. But state-mandated staffing requirements, as well as the inefficient layout of the aging jails has led to more mandatory shifts in need of filling than people willing to fill them, said Sheriff John Garcia.

Garcia has described the forced overtime as “cruel and unusual punishment,” resulting in more than 40 resignations from jail staff since he took over as sheriff in January of last year.

To address this, Poloncarz and the county Legislature approved the hiring of 30 full-time corrections officers and jail deputies, 10 part-time Holding Center guard positions, six sergeants and one lieutenant at a cost of several million dollars in the 2023 budget.

But one year later, some of those positions remain vacant, though Garcia said he expects all full-time posts to be filled by next week.

On Friday and Monday, union employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new agreement to retroactively change the pension program for officers and deputies so that they qualify for full pensions and benefits after 25 years, regardless of age. That now puts Erie County on par with the state prison pension system and the pension systems of most other county jail programs in New York. That means some individuals hired shortly after high school or college could qualify for full retirement benefits while still in their 40s.

More than 600 employees and supervisors in the county jail system would be affected by the change, said Joshua Pennel, the county’s commissioner of labor relations.

“To see this kind of collaboration between ourselves, the Teamsters, Sheriff Garcia and County Executive Poloncarz has reaffirmed my trust in this county to properly protect and care for its employees,” said John DiMartino, president of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 815 Corrections Unit. “I am optimistic that this change will bolster recruitment and retention efforts within the county corrections system. Lastly, I’d like to specifically thank Mark Poloncarz for finding the funding for and fully supporting this effort that’s been over a decade in the making.”

The retroactive change is expected to cost the county $12.7 million, with an additional $1.9 million in additional costs every year going forward. But county officials said they believe other changes outlined in the new agreement should help offset future costs. The $12.7 million in retroactive costs, meanwhile, is expected to be covered by county fringe benefit savings due to unfilled vacancies, and from year-end surplus money.

“Oh my god, what a difference it’s going to make,” Garcia said.

Impact on recruitment and retention

Working as a jail officer is no one’s idea of a dream job, Garcia said. It’s often both boring and stressful, with mandated overnight, weekend and holiday shifts.

High pay and benefits have been traditional lures for the profession. But being forced to stay in that job for 30 years or until age 62 to qualify for full pension benefits, when every other major county in the state allows corrections staff to retire with full benefits years earlier, has been a tough sell.

Pair that with a slow-moving civil service exam process, which forces people to wait six months or longer for results, followed by physical agility, polygraph and psychological testing, and a growing disinterest in criminal justice professions, and you have a hiring system doomed to fail, county leaders have said.

By changing the pension requirements, Garcia said he expects to recruit many corrections officers working in the New York State prison system who want to return to Western New York but are unwilling to trade their current pension to the inferior one that has been offered by Erie County.

Other concessions

In exchange for the pension improvements, union members with the Teamsters and CSEA would give up two of their 15 annual sick days, Pennel said, though all unused sick days can be rolled over. That change is expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

To keep employees from burning through their sick time before retirement, the county will also establish a health retirement account for employees so that unused sick hours can be converted into cash, at a half-pay rate, for use in offsetting health expenses post-retirement, Pennel said. The new account is being created to prevent employees who are within a few years of retirement from scheduling major surgeries and other health procedures during their final working years.

Because unused sick time cannot be cashed out when individuals retire, veteran employees tend to use up their accrued sick time before they leave county employment, forcing the county to fill shifts with overtime, county officials said.

The county is also requiring that the Sheriff’s Office adopt an electronic time clock system, used by all other county departments, for tracking work time. That system, which requires employees to swipe their badges in and out of work, should be in place in the jails by late next year, said Personnel Commissioner Brian Bray .

“In many respects, the paper system is just antiquated,” he said.

Finally, Garcia’s policy of paying double time to those who work jail overtime will end on Dec. 1. Union contracts require overtime to paid at a rate of time and a half. But to prevent employees from quitting due to short staffing and forced overtime, Garcia agreed this past spring to pay double time, which has been a costly expense.

Easier civil service application process

Separate from the agreement reached with the union, Erie County has worked with the state Civil Service Department to eliminate the need for an in-person civil service test that takes many months to process and score.

Instead, individuals can complete an online “training and experience” application that awards points for different levels of educational attainment and work experience. State Civil Service still awards points for application responses, based on a confidential formula, but the turnaround time is expected to be much swifter, Bray said. The first such application process for Erie County jail positions began at the end of September and closed on Tuesday.

Those who score well on the résumé-type application must still undergo agility training, reference and background checks and psychological testing, Garcia said, but the barrier to even be considered for the job is now much lower.

Garcia noted that the last civil service list, released over the summer after a half-year of waiting, was exhausted within a few months.

“It’s not always the person that takes an exam and does well that is the best candidate,” Garcia said. “It might be the person that has been a good employee wherever they were.”


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