California Prison Employees Reap Staggering Overtime Payments

By Christopher Zoukis

These are flush times for California prison workers. In 2014, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employees hit a six-year high for overtime pay, receiving $575 million in overtime despite a major decline in the state’s prison population.

Over a third of CDCR guards (more than 8,000) were paid over $100,000 in total wages, including overtime, in 2014. By contrast, only 10% of the state’s prison guards (around 2,400) had been compensated at that rate in 2006.

A three-judge federal court, citing extreme overcrowding, ordered the CDCR to significantly reduce its population in late 2009. From the time of that mandate to 2015, the number of California prisoners declined by over 25% while the number of prison guards dropped by just 10%.

Yet during that same time period the CDCR’s payroll costs increased 5.3%, with collective base pay awarded to members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA, the union that represents about 29,000 prison employees) reaching $2.1 billion plus $340 million in overtime in 2015.

Much of the increase in payroll costs has been due to overtime compensation paid to guards, who, in some cases, received overtime amounting to more than 100% of their base pay. For example, the CDCR guard who earned the most overtime in 2014 was Lt. Jeffrey Nixon at the Parlin Fork Conservation Camp. Nixon took home $162,048 in overtime compensation in addition to his base pay of $105,204.

CDCR officials have said the growth in overtime pay is largely due to lower numbers of correctional staff. To remedy that situation, in January 2015 the CDCR announced its intention to hire 7,000 new guards.

However, by no means is the trend of increased overtime pay limited to prison guards. While most overtime went to front-line staff, 29 doctors and nurses made over $100,000 in overtime too, a number of which were able to double their base pay.

With an in-state population of about 124,400 prisoners and less than 400 doctors to treat them, CDCR physicians are often overburdened and forced to work overtime. This is typical of many healthcare workers in and outside of prison; what is unusual, though, is that CDCR doctors are allowed to receive overtime pay while federal rules prohibit their colleagues who are not employed in prisons from doing so.

In the CDCR, physicians who respond to emergencies or agree to be on call are rewarded with compensatory time off. Once such unused time reaches 480 hours, they receive cash for additional hours worked. Under this payment arrangement, Dr. Jack Wong, chief surgeon at the North California Youth Correctional Center, made $266,679 in base pay plus $298,660 in overtime in 2014. He was the state’s leader in overtime compensation. Other prison doctors were well-paid, too. Dr. Somkiet Pajong at the Salinas Valley State Prison received $262,750 in base pay and $225,221 in overtime, while Dr. Hou Nguyen at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton made $262,750 in base pay plus $175,267 in overtime.

According to CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa, “It can be difficult for someone in that position to use the extra time because of the demands of their job, so it accumulates sometimes over more than a single year.” Critics, however, are dubious about such hefty overtime pay and the special rules governing compensation for CDCR doctors.

In March 2016, the CCPOA proposed a new contract with the state. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the contract would incrementally increase compensation paid to the union’s members by a cumulative $316.8 million (9.3%) in pay raises by fiscal year 2018-19, plus around $272 million in other costs.

Despite the CDCR’s stated intent to decrease the burden of overtime pay by hiring more guards, the CCPOA’s proposal would significantly ease restrictions on overtime by allowing prison employees to factor paid off-duty days (such as military training leave, jury duty and subpoenaed witness leave) into their 40-hour work week. Once employees exceed 40 hours per week, including any paid leave, they receive overtime at a rate of time-and-a-half.

The new contract was approved by the CCPOA’s membership and signed by Governor Jerry Brown in May 2016. Pursuant to the contract, prison employees will start contributing to a retirement benefits trust fund with matching payments by the state; the net effect of the contract will be a 5.3% increase in base pay for most CDCR guards.

Sources: www.utsandiego.com, www.sandiegouniontribune.com, www.sacbee.com

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on December 7, 2016.