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Rein In Guards' Overtime

February 17, 2003

We could slam the prison guards union for, among other demonstrations of clout, making it possible for dozens of correctional officers to earn more than state legislators. But it's hard to condemn the Correctional Peace Officers Assn. for pushing for the best deal for its members: That's what unions do.

No, the people who should get sacks of irate taxpayer letters are the state's elected officials, including Gov. Gray Davis, who either didn't read the fine print in the guards' contract before signing it or didn't have the guts to say no to one of his biggest campaign donors.

Legislators and the governor approved a contract for the state's 23,000 guards last January that, in addition to a 34% pay increase over four years, has created a spiral of sick leave and overtime. Overtime hours have risen by 25% over the last two years, costing taxpayers $200 million in time-and-a-half pay, even as California faces a $34-billion budget shortfall.

Here's why some prison guards are putting in 1,000 hours or more of overtime a year, doubling $55,000 salaries: The new contract drops a clause allowing a manager to ask the officer to produce a doctor's note. Now, no surprise, guards are calling in sick more often. That means more overtime hours for the guards willing to cover for their absent colleagues, which stresses out those guards, who then call in sick.

That's how 110 correctional officers earned more than $100,000 last year. Two guards made more than the director of the Department of Corrections and one, at $145,000, pulled in more than California's attorney general. They racked up this overtime bonanza as state prison wardens worked to curb overtime by filling long-standing vacancies with 2,100 newly hired guards.

Correctional officers bristle at suggestions they are featherbedding and defend the sick-leave rules, insisting that their jobs are perilous and demeaning.

No question, guarding murderers and rapists is lousy work. But with the ballooning state deficit triggering teacher layoffs and hospital closures, why on Earth did lawmakers agree to rules that force them to hand over wads of cash to correctional officers?

Part of the answer surely lies in the union's political generosity, the $251,000 it gave to Davis' reelection campaign and the $1 million it lavished on legislators and their causes last year. And the union isn't shy about playing its soft-on-crime card against lawmakers who dare to defy it. But defy it they must. Anything else is one more slap in taxpayers' faces.

Davis directed his chief labor negotiator last week to reopen the guards' contract, which doesn't expire until 2006. The governor's office says the guards' windfall pay raises are on the table. Good, but unless the state reins in overtime as well, California's budget pain will only multiply.

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