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N.Y. county jail COs overwhelmed by mandatory OT amid staff shortages

“It’s not a management issue,” the Ulster County Jail CO’s union said. “Honestly, the sheriff is phenomenal. Our supervisors are great. It’s a matter of getting people in here. It’s the job”

Ulster County Jail

Ulster County Sheriff’s Office

By Diane Pineiro-Zucker
Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

KINGSTON, N.Y. — Most of the 137 corrections officers (COs) at the Ulster County Jail are not celebrating the mandated overtime that more than doubles some of their annual salaries. Instead, they are working with county lawmakers and the sheriff to solve the problem, a union official said this week.

“Not everybody likes this money,” Christopher Rider, president of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Employees Association said in a phone interview this week. “Some of us love our families and our wives and want to go home. We want to do Little League. We want to coach. We want to do other stuff.

“They think we’re just a bunch of people sitting around on our asses that are getting paid a bunch of stupid money. There is a toll,” Rider said.

Referring to a Freeman article about overtime and wages at the 457-bed facility, Rider said, “It made us look like we’re enjoying this overtime when the truth of the matter is we’re 24 (employees) short, we lost 31 members last year — they retired or got fired or quit — and there’s a lot of us that are being stuck working 12 to 16 hours every day that don’t want to be here.”

According to the Ulster County Pay Dashboard, the jail had by far the highest amount of overtime of any county department in 2023.

Rider said COs worked 21,999 mandatory overtime hours at the jail in 2023 and had already put in 3,356 hours of mandatory overtime as of about Wednesday, March 20. “There’s only a couple of people working overtime that want that money,” Rider said.

Reached by phone Thursday, Sheriff Juan Figueroa agreed with much of what Rider said. And Rider had nothing but praise for the sheriff and jail management.

“It’s not a management issue,” Rider said. “Honestly, the sheriff is phenomenal. Our supervisors are great. It’s a matter of getting people in here. It’s the job.”

On Wednesday, March 20, he said, there were “15 holes” in staffing that would have to be filled by mandatory overtime that night. The solution, according to Rider, is to “hire people. Get people here. Retention. Recruitment. Retention’s our biggest thing.”

He said the mandatory overtime hours are required to meet the minimum staffing mandates of the state Commission of Correction.

“We hired 12 people last year for the jail and road patrol but we lost 31 people last year,” Rider said. “Every day we’re running 24 officers short,” requiring mandated hours, he added.

The union is “working with the legislators and the county exec hand in hand trying to get it fixed so we can get this (jail) staffed. ... We’ve lost people to Kingston High School,” Rider said. “We’ve lost seven employees to Orange County because within four years over there you’re making $105,000 as a CO — $104,258, I think, over there.”

In Ulster, aside from the mandated overtime, salaries top out at around $81,000 after 25 years, according to Rider. He said that COs are “more prone to PTSD” and that, after a 16-hour shift, “when you’re driving home, you’re driving home ability-impaired.”

At a recent Ulster County Legislature Law Enforcement Committee meeting, Rider said the sheriff backed up his employees’ demands for increased salaries and more staff.

A starting CO salary in Ulster County is about $52,000 and getting more staff isn’t going to be an easy prospect. Figuaroa said he supports both pension reform and higher wages for COs and that he has already decreased health insurance costs for retired COs.

Pointing to what sounded like a perfect storm, however, Figueroa explained the problem from his perspective.

The onset of COVID, in 2020, resulted in a temporary drop in the facility’s population, just as law enforcement and corrections were adapting to the recent implementation of bail reform, he said.

“It’s a combination of things,” Figueroa said. “The big snowball effect. ... During the pandemic there were hiring freezes, there were retirement incentives. ... We gave up 10 positions during the pandemic at the jail. We went from 147 to 137. ... You’re supposed to have 157 officers working at this facility, according to the state Commission of Correction. At that particular time, we only had 120 (COs) and there was a hiring freeze and a promotion freeze and a retirement incentive that occurred.”

The jail’s population also dropped.

“When I took office there were 240 (incarcerated) folks,” he said. In February of 2020, for the first time since 1979, we went as low as 99. It was right after bail reform was passed. And right after February 2020, what happened? The pandemic. Boom. Their numbers were hovering at 130, 140, but I knew they were not true numbers because the court system was closed due to the pandemic and the numbers just weren’t accurate. We had to wait until bail reform was fully implemented to look at the numbers, to look at the staffing numbers, which is what we’re doing now.”

Since the pandemic, as he expected, the jail population has risen, the sheriff said.

“Today ... as of this past Monday, we have 220 people that are incarcerated at the jail. So, I was right. The numbers were never going to be accurate because we sent people home if they were sick, if they were less than two months on their sentence, because we didn’t want them to die here because of the pandemic. Bail reform wasn’t fully in place. The court system was shut down.”

With retirement incentives in place and both hiring and promotion freezes of 2020 “and, on top of it, anti-law enforcement sentiment leads us to where we are today. Nobody wants these jobs. ... That’s mandatory overtime. That’s the only place in the county where if you are working and somebody calls in sick, you are mandated to stay. You have to stay. So these guys are getting pretty burned out.”

Rider agreed, saying that his “bosses and the legislators ... we all talk. They understand where we’re at. They know we’re short-staffed. They’re trying to do their part. We’re trying to do our part. It’s just, the only thing that’s going to get anybody in there is more money, retirement, benefits. They’ve got to do something.”

The stress of corrections work takes its toll, the sheriff said. “In my entire 36-year career, I’ve seen how people react to different stresses, but these are jobs — whether it’s law enforcement, detectives, investigator, police officer, trooper, corrections officer — you see some pretty bad things and it has an effect,” he said. “And that’s why there’s a 20-year retirement. It has an effect on the human psyche, it does.”

Rider hopes the public will see the problem from the law enforcement community’s perspective.

“When I started this job, I loved this job,” he said. “I still to this day love doing what I do. It gives me a chance to help people. Try to get people clean. Try to get them in programs. Try to get them out and make them active members of society. ... The sheriff has put in programs in here that aren’t seen in other jails in the state. He’s all for us. We’re trying to work with him hand in hand. There’s only so many hours.”


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