NASHVILLE – Yesterday, TSEA met with Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield, Deputy Commissioner Chuck Taylor, HR Director Lisa Patton, Asst. HR Director Debby Dolan, Special Assistant Richard Muckle and Public Information Officer Alison Randgaard to discuss our concerns about staffing shortages, turnover rates and the 28-day work cycle. For your information, a full recap of that meeting is included below.
Also, the department Wednesday sent out a letter announcing an adjustment to how overtime is paid, and based on our meeting they seem willing to make other adjustments to the work cycle, but there is much more work to be done.
There seems to be some disconnect between what we are hearing from the commissioner and his staff and what we are hearing from our members working in the prisons.
TSEA plans to continue monitoring the issues occurring in the department of correction closely. In the coming days, we will set up a section on our website where you can email TSEA with any concerns or problems you have in your facility, which we review and send to the commissioner as appropriate. Let’s make sure we keep them informed of the issues.
In addition, several legislators have communicated with TSEA staff regarding the challenges facing corrections. Those legislators share our concerns about public safety and the safety of workers. TSEA will continue to work with your legislators to address the concerns we have heard from our members, and will also continue to bring these conversations forward to the commissioner and his staff.
A full recap of TSEA’s 7-30-2015 meeting with TDOC
We gave the commissioner several examples of specific issues that we’ve heard from our members in TDOC. Some of the examples seemed to surprise him. In response, he said everything is ultimately his responsibility, but prisons are run at the prison level. He told TSEA he empowers his wardens to run their facilities and expects them to be responsible and take care of their people, but sometimes problems occur that need to be addressed.
The Commissioner said vacancy is always a concern, but was adamant that the 28-day work cycle is working. The Commissioner admitted the system has a few problems. Those problems include a lag in overtime pay and how O/T is calculated. The department Wednesday sent out a letter with regard to a change they have implemented for overtime which is set to begin tomorrow. The Commissioner said they are trying to get away from the mandatory O/T roster and to allow flexibility for those who want to work the overtime.
We asked if they considered other work cycle options, which could improve the overtime pay lag, under the same federal exemption that allows for the 28-day cycle. For example, a 14-day plan could pay overtime for anything over 86 hours. That plan could allow employees to be paid any overtime they work after 14 days instead of having to wait 28 days. The department admitted they had not considered the 14-day plan, but said they would look into the option.
We voiced our concerns for the safety of our state employees and asked the commissioner about the recent staffing shortages.
The commissioner indicated the total number of correctional officers includes enough staff to provide relief for any vacancies. They stand by their statement that there is no correlation between the turnover ratio and the 28-day schedule. The Commissioner said the statistics do not reflect staffing issues that have been ongoing well before the change to the 28-day schedule. We discussed the concern about the number of double-shifts being asked of our members. The Commissioner responded that there are primarily three facilities they find challenging to staff. Bledsoe, based on the remoteness of the location and other work opportunities nearby, and the West TN locations based on other competitive job opportunities in the area. He also told us that to help the employees, the department had committed to funding cash overtime compensation as opposed to offering “comp” time.
We asked about the mobility between facilities and would that be required of the Correctional Officers. He said with the exception of the Strike Team, participation in traveling to other facilities would continue to be voluntary and some incentives were currently being offered.
Last week’s prison lockdowns in three state-run Tennessee prisons, that included an attack on an officer and injuries to eight inmates, highlight the hazardous environment in which our state employee correctional officers work every day. We believe all employees, regardless of their position, warrant a reasonable level of safety while at work.
We asked the department about their recruiting efforts. They told us their recruiting efforts include a presence at community colleges, career fairs, on TV, radio, billboards, etc. TSEA made a recommendation that the department consider implementing electronic online applications for the correctional officer position, and to have DOHR add a link to TDOC’s page on DOHR’s website during the period while the state’s job site, neo-gov, is offline. Both ideas were well received.
Another option suggested by President Bryan Merritt was to consider employing recent state employee retirees, whose credentials have not expired, to return to work for a 120-day period to help with staffing and O/T issues. They responded this might be an option with those individuals being provided a refresher course in the correction officer responsibilities.
The department also told TSEA about a new incentive program for recruiting that was just approved. The numbers discussed included $100 for referrals and a signing bonus of around $600 to be paid after the new employee has remained with the department for the one year probationary period. As we learn more about this program, we will let you know. President Bryan Merritt asked if there would be a means to getting the money out quicker, perhaps giving half upon completion of the academy and the remainder upon completion of the probation. The Commissioner said they would not take anything helpful off the table.
TSEA offered to monitor trends and issues provided by our membership and present a monthly report to the department. The commissioner welcomed the feedback, and told TSEA to also reach out to the wardens with issues at particular facilities. Both parties also agreed upon a quarterly meeting moving forward.
The Commissioner indicated there were no plans to close any additional prison facilities at this time. He also stated there were no plans to privatize the prison system as a whole; however, the department will continue to consider contracting out portions of the services at the prison.
We did thank the commissioner for increasing officer pay by 5%, but asked if there were any plans for more increases. He said their plan was originally for more of an increase, but 5% was all they were able to accomplish. They acknowledged there are challenges with recruiting and salary limitations, but also said Tennessee pays its officers the highest on average of all of the southern states. The Commissioner also said if they are able to control O/T, their plan is to address additional salary increases next year.
When asked what the department’s overall message is to its workers, the Commissioner replied, “We are listening to your concerns. If we know about an issue, HQ is going to respond and react. For example, you asked us to address the problems with overtime and we are doing that. Change takes time, and can sometimes be rocky.”
Commissioner Schofield also committed to provide TSEA the evaluation data on the 28-day program which he plans to present to Governor Haslam today.