Overtime Pays Off at Prisons
Joe Bradley is a California state employee who earned a bigger state paycheck last year than did any member of the Legislature or most other state workers.
Bradley doesn’t run an agency, oversee a college campus or control big pension investments. He is a prison guard, one of at least 110 correctional workers who made more than $100,000 last year. Two correctional officers made more than the director of the Department of Corrections. And one made upward of $145,000, more than the salary of Superior Court judges and California’s attorney general.
While the top pay scale for correctional officers is $54,888, Bradley and the others managed to double that by working 1,000 hours or more in overtime.
Altogether, the state’s roughly 23,000 correctional officers, sergeants and lieutenants punched in $200-million worth of overtime last year. The number of hours was more than 25% above the level of just two years ago. The level rose even though California hired 2,100 more correctional officers, specifically to bring overtime to heel by filling vacancies.
The governor and the Legislature took other actions, however, that now make soaring prison overtime an unintended contributor to the state’s $34-billion budget shortfall over the next 17 months.
Much of the overtime problem, officials agree, stems from a seemingly innocuous change in prison sick leave policy.
Heading into the 2002 election, Davis and a near-unanimous Legislature ratified that change last January by approving a labor contract with the prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which is among the largest campaign donors in the state.
In addition to granting correctional officers a major boost in pay, the labor pact permitted officers to call in sick without a doctor’s note confirming the illness. With the new policy in place, prison officers called in sick 500,000 more hours in 2002 than in 2001, a 27% increase.
“Our overtime would have been below 2001, or real close, had it not been for that 500,000-hour increase,” said Wendy Still, the main budget analyst for the Department of Corrections.
Union executives attribute the heavy overtime to the roughly 1,500 vacancies among correctional officers. While many officers volunteer for overtime, supervisors often must order them to work extra shifts just to keep inmates properly in check. As officers tell it, extra overtime leads to sick time, which feeds the need for more overtime. All the work can take a toll.
While vacancies and other factors contribute to overtime, the nonpartisan Bureau of State Audits reported that the biggest single chunk last year -- 34% -- was required to compensate for guards who called in sick.
State officials have been well aware of the problem.
The Department of Corrections has asked for $98 million to pay for high overtime costs from 2001. While the final tally for 2002 is not complete, prison officials expect the count will exceed 2001 by about 100,000 hours.
In January, the Department of Finance requested that the Legislature give Corrections an extra $21.09 million and let officials fill 114 positions to cover “under-budgeted sick leave funding” for the current fiscal year. In the coming year, Davis estimates that sick leave will cost an additional $14.7 million and require 327 more prison workers.
For prison workers, the extra hours are lucrative. Officers are paid time and a half, averaging $37 an hour, roughly $200 a day after taxes. Like everyone else, they have bills to pay. Bradley, a 31-year veteran at the California Institute for Men at Chino, uses his overtime to pay to remodel his retirement home in Vermont.
“Some want to buy new cars,” said Bradley, who is counting down the final few days toward retirement. “Some want to come up with down payments for houses. They have different things they want to buy. They want to bring better lives to their families.”
Officer T.L. Laudermill, 44, put in more than 2,200 hours of overtime at Chino state prison. That’s essentially a double shift or more every workday of the year.
He has good reason. His wife of 21 years cannot work because she has lupus and is on dialysis nine hours a day. And Laudermill believes he earned every penny of his $145,000-plus pay.
“People don’t know what it’s like behind the wall,” Laudermill said. “I wake up, go to work and I’m not promised I will make it home to see my family. How many times this morning did someone curse you? How often do you have to wrestle an inmate to the ground? Did anyone throw feces in your face?”
Laudermill and Bradley violate no rule by working overtime. But because the Department of Corrections relies so heavily on officers who put in extra shifts, the agency consistently has been overspending its budget of about $5 billion. In its assessment of perennial cost overruns, the Bureau of State Audits cites two repeat offenders: overtime and sick leave.
* In January 2000, the auditor reported the department “failed to effectively manage sick leave use, holiday and other paid leave programs,” resulting in “excessive overtime costs.”
* In November 2001, the auditor said the department ran up $87 million in unnecessary costs because of “excessive overtime for custody staff required to make up for numerous vacant positions and exorbitant use of sick leave.”
* Most recently, in July, the auditor focused on costs associated with the new labor contract. Pointing to what it called a dramatic rise in sick leave, the auditor noted that “overtime costs have likely increased to cover for the added absences.”
The guards’ labor contract attracted attention last year, in part because the union donated $251,000 to Davis’ reelection two months after he signed legislation implementing the deal. Altogether, the union gave Davis $1.4 million in direct and indirect donations during his first term.
The union also is among the biggest donors to legislators, spending more than $1 million on their causes and campaigns last year.
The union estimates that officers’ pay, which ranks fourth highest in the nation, will rise to $73,000 annually by 2006, when the contract expires. That 34% increase will cost the state $500 million a year.
But pay is only one cost embedded in the contract.
At the union’s urging, Davis administration negotiators eliminated one way for supervisors to monitor sick leave and discipline officers suspected of not legitimately being sick.
Previously, managers could place officers on a list for “extraordinary use of sick leave” if they appeared to be abusing the right by, for example, claiming to be ill after having been denied a day off.
Once on the list, an employee needed to provide a note from a doctor justifying leave. An employee who continued abusing sick leave could face discipline, such as suspension. The new contract abolishes that list and says employees may not face discipline simply for calling in sick frequently.
“Our language was the most repressive of any bargaining unit in the state,” said Gary Clark, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. chapter at Chino, the prison that led all others in overtime last year. “Now we can actually use the sick leave that we earn.”
By contract, correctional officers are entitled to one day of paid sick leave each month. Last year, correctional officers used an average of about 13.5 days, utilizing accrued days. It’s a number on the rise. On average, officers stayed home ill nine days in 1999.
A Department of Corrections spokesman, Russ Heimerich, said he doubts sick leave is being abused. But he noted that prison supervisors “had a management tool taken away” when Davis and the Legislature approved the labor contract.
“It is what it is,” Heimerich said. “That decision was made in the bargaining process to take that out of the equation, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.”
The Times reported last June that sick leave spiked upward in the four months after Davis signed legislation implementing the labor contract. At the time, the governor directed that his chief labor negotiator, Marty Morgenstern, “immediately review the situation and take all actions to make sure the system is not abused.”
Despite that pronouncement, sick leave continued rising in 2002. “At this point,” Morgenstern said last week, “we haven’t found particular abuses.”
This year, in trying to close the overall budget gap, Davis directed him to reopen contracts with unions for prison guards and three public employee groups. Morgenstern’s goal is to cut $470 million in costs.
In an interview, Morgenstern said he will home in on officers’ pay, not on sick leave provisions. And he defended his decision to eliminate the sick leave list.
The elimination of sick leave discipline is not the only reason for the run-up in sick leave. In its reports, the state auditor has noted that the Davis administration agreed in 1999 to let guards count sick days toward overtime.
As a result, an officer can work eight-hour shifts Monday through Thursday, call in sick on Friday, then fill in for someone on Saturday and collect a day’s overtime pay. That change took effect in 2000. In 2001, overtime shot up by a million hours to 5.1 million hours at an overall cost of $200 million.
Additionally, the new contract for the first time granted permanent intermittent employees -- officers who have not yet been hired full time -- the right to use sick leave. Now a supervisor seeking to fill a vacant post may phone an intermittent employee. If the employee claims to be ill, he or she would receive eight hours of sick pay. Other employees contacted by phone also could claim to be ill. As a result, the auditor has noted, the department could have to pay for sick leave “for several employees to cover one absence.”
Another more long-standing provision requires that the Department of Corrections grant overtime on the basis of seniority. That means the highest paid officers have first claim on any overtime. If all officers including rookies could bid on overtime, the state could save $4.8 million a year, the auditor said.
In 2002, the state graduated 2,117 new officers from its training academy, twice the number of 2001 graduates and the most since the mid-1990s when the prison population was soaring.
“We are filling more posted positions with people, and we are seeing our vacancy rate go down,” Heimerich said. “That part is good. We’re optimistic that, as we continue doing that, we will see fewer overtime hours worked. Sick leave is more of a conundrum.”
Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) is the one legislator who voted against the guards’ contract. In his view, the new sick leave provisions worsen what already was a “racket” among officers: “ ‘I’ll get sick today and you cover for me; you get sick tomorrow, and I’ll cover for you.’ ”
But there is a broader issue, as McClintock sees it, and it helps explain California’s huge budget gap. Prison costs are rising, even as the prison population, while up slightly, remains below 1990 levels, he noted. “That’s one of the departments that is causing the outrageously high levels of expenditures,” he said. “Clearly, the state’s expenditures cannot be sustained by the state’s economy.”