Policy to address prison call-offs

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County has started to enforce policies that could lead to the firing of corrections officers who take excessive unauthorized days off, according to prison board officials who met Thursday.

County Human Resources Director Katherine Swigart told the prison board that five officers are in “corrective action” under policies outlined in a collective bargaining agreement that went into effect this year.

Employees are given points for unauthorized call-offs from their jobs, such as taking vacation not scheduled at least 48 hours in advance, sick days without a doctor’s excuse or taking time off to take a spouse to an appointment.

After five unauthorized call-offs in a year, a verbal warning is given. Written warnings are issued after the seventh and ninth unauthorized absences.

When the number of unauthorized call-offs reaches 11, the result will be dismissal from the job, Swigart explained.

In addition to a doctor’s excuse, other examples of authorized time off include personal days, stress days, bereavement leave, jury duty, workers’ compensation, military leave, Family Medical Leave Act and union business. An authorized call-off does not result in corrective action, Swigart said.

Call-offs by both fill-in or full-time corrections officers have been an issue for several months, Sheriff Mitch Cooper, prison board chairman, said.

Cooper and a committee of the board two months ago put forth an action plan to address problems at the prison, including employment, staffing and security issues.

His goal is to have the action plan in place by July.

Cooper on Thursday released an analysis focusing on the relationship between overtime and call-offs.

Overtime during the first quarter of the year, January through April, cost the county $52,000.

He reported Thursday that $42,973, or 82 percent of the overtime, is the result of authorized and unauthorized call-offs by the officers.

He said over the first four months of the year, there were 184 “occurrences” of prison staff working overtime and 126 of those shifts, or 70 percent, he said, were the result of call-offs.

“The prison management staff and the HR director are continuing to track call-offs and enforce the call-off policy included in the current labor contract,” the sheriff outlined in his report.

Tim Miller, representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Thursday afternoon that many of the call-offs are authorized and many factors figure into the need for overtime, including transport of inmates to the hospital or to other prison facilities, training and other activities.

His point was that the overtime is not just from employee call-offs.

Miller said the prison is functioning with a “bare bones” staff and any employee call-off means overtime.

He concluded that the corrective action policies under this year’s contract are not new.

“They just didn’t enforce it [corrective action policies],” he said.

Cooper said during the prison board meeting that staffing is under review.

It was also revealed Thursday that the county uses 22 fill-ins or part-time officers. The warden is authorized to hire 35 fill-ins.

County Controller Richard Peo expressed another concern, stating that it was reported last month that two inmates were improperly released from the prison. He questioned why it has taken so long to discipline the officer who released the inmates.

Swigart explained that issue is being addressed, but she said she could not speak about it at a public meeting because it involves a confidential personnel matter. Cooper said an executive session will be scheduled to discuss Peo’s concerns.

The sheriff said many parts of the board-approved action plan are being put into place:

– Deputy Sheriff Sam McClure, a veteran police officer, is undergoing training this week to become the prison’s first internal affairs investigator.

– Top prison officials, including Warden Michael M. Johnston and Deputy Warden Marc T. Masucci, are making regular tours through the prison blocks and recording their findings.

– Two new lieutenants will be hired, assuring ranking officers are on duty during all three employee shifts and on weekends.