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Overtime Pays Off at Prisons

Some guards make more than $100,000 a year. Sick leave provision in contract lets them cash in on extra hours but adds to budget troubles.

February 10, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — 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.

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