Prison call-offs reach high in December

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County Prison Board members were stunned Thursday by news that the number of call-offs by corrections officers reached an all-time high of 162 in December, which contributed to more than $321,000 in overtime paid to prison employees during 2013.

Warden Michael M. Johnston’s report started a lengthy discussion on solutions to the continuing overtime and staffing problems that emerged during 2013 and continue into the new year.

Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron said he didn’t consider the employees or their union, Local 3157 of the American Federation of a State, County and Municipal Employees, the problem in this situation.

He said it is up to management – the Prison Board and officials at the prison – to come up with answers.

“It’s up to us. … I hold us accountable,” the judge said.

The Prison Board, comprised of the commissioners, controller, sheriff, district attorney and a judge, held an intense discussion that lasted almost an hour.

It decided to keep close watch on the number of call-offs and to confer with the county’s labor attorney, David Andrews, concerning what sanctions could be levied under a new labor agreement if corrections officers don’t attend training on new attendance procedures.

The county’s personnel director, Katherine Swigart, reported that only 41 officers had attended mandatory meetings on the attendance procedures that became effective Jan. 1.

The Prison Board noted there are more than 80 officers on the roster that presently includes 24 part-time or fill-in employees who take the places of others who have called off prior to their shift.

The new procedure is based on a point system.

Officers who don’t show up for work, arrive late or leave early receive points.

They are permitted to accumulate up to five points without sanctions.

If they reach the five-point cap but don’t call off for several months, their point total will be reduced.

The sanction for exceeding the five points will result in written warnings and eventually dismissal, if the improper call-offs continue.

Johnston reported that in the first two weeks of January, there were 58 call-offs, and so far 30 points have been assessed.

Board members became aware of the rising number of call-offs last year and became concerned about the overtime, which in January 2013 totaled $7,783 and in February 2013 amounted to only $168.

But for a two-week pay period in May, the number jumped to $23,236. In August pay periods, the overtime cost was in the $23,000 range.

Terry Tomassetti, the commissioner who chaired the board until Thursday when he was replaced by Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, said the overtime dropped substantially, amounting to only $21,746 over four pay periods in September and October, but for the final two pay periods of 2013, the overtime burgeoned to $27,746.

The call-offs are not the only reason for the substantial overtime, as the warden pointed out.

In the later part of November and early December, corrections officers were used to provide security for hospitalized inmates. Officers also transported inmates to the State Correctional Institutions at Muncy and Camp Hill.

Family medical leave also was a factor in the overtime.

Tomassetti earlier this week obtained information about the call-offs in January.

He said of 50 call-offs that had occurred as of last Monday, 29 were due to illness, 11 took a stress day, seven used a day for family-related medical problems, one took a bereavement day, one was a no-show and one took a personal day.

Not all of the days resulted in “points” under the new procedures.

The warden said he was told the officers, by utilizing call-offs, were trying to “prove a point.”

“Is there an effort to prove a point?” Tomassetti said, addressing his question to three union members at the meeting.

Frank Bailey, union president, said he never heard that. He said a lot of his people simply don’t understand the new policy.

That led board members to insist that efforts be stepped up to have the employees attend meetings at which the new policy is explained.

After the meeting, Bailey stated he didn’t know how calling off sick or taking another type of day off would be “making a point.” All that does, he explained, is use up a benefit, such as sick days, that the employee may need at a later date. He asked rhetorically how can “getting yourself in trouble” be making a point?

Another union member with Bailey questioned the accuracy of the call-off numbers.

The warden brought up one other problem that helped boost overtime: fill-in workers not answering their calls.

The county has authorized 35 fill-in positions (24 are filled), but many of those workers don’t respond to calls because the part-time job at the prison may conflict with their regular full-time positions elsewhere or many just don’t like the part-time work, board members speculated.

Swigart suggested the reasons for the lack of response by part timers should be investigated.

Controller Richard Peo asked whether the cost of hiring additional full-time workers would be less expensive than paying overtime?

Board members agreed that they would begin immediately to work on the many personnel problems and not wait until February, when the next Prison Board meeting is scheduled, to come up with answers.