Some Southern Illinois state prison workers are drawing six figures, and even upwards of $200,000 per year, when overtime payouts are combined with their regular pay.
For example, a shift supervisor at the Vandalia Correctional Center who earns almost $96,000 a year made nearly an additional $107,000 in overtime last year, according to records sought from the Illinois Department of Corrections under a Freedom of Information Act request by The Southern Illinoisan.
A shift supervisor at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, who makes almost $119,000 earned nearly $57,000 in overtime. A correctional sergeant at Centralia Correctional Center pulled in about $50,000 in overtime on top of a nearly $74,000 salary.
OT tops $60 million
Statewide, this is the second year that overtime payouts at the Department of Corrections have topped $60 million.
Prisons are big industry in Southern Illinois, and the large overtime payouts by the Department of Corrections to prison workers raise several questions for our region, such as:
• Are workers putting in too many hours to maintain safety?
• Would it be more effective and cost efficient to hire new employees?
• Would the hiring of new employees help the unemployment problem in Southern Illinois?
• What is being done to curtail overtime payouts that union and state officials alike agree are problematic?
An ongoing issue
Regional politicians said this is an ongoing issue in Southern Illinois’ state prisons that seems to fester year after year.
“We’ve asked to hire more people, plain and simple,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg. “That’s how you correct the overtime problem. We’ve asked Corrections to do that for years.”
Tom Shaer is IDOC’s director of communications. He said the department has made some strides to cut down overtime hours. Between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2014, for instance, there was a reduction of 178,000 hours of overtime worked, a 12 percent difference. However, the department only saved $2 million, he said. In fiscal year 2013, the department paid $62.8 million in overtime; in fiscal year 2014, that amount shrank slightly to $60.7 million.
“We agree those are still significant numbers and that’s why the topic gets a lot of deserved attention,” he said.
Change is slow
But despite all the attention it gets, regional politicians say little seems to change.
“It doesn’t seem to me to make sense to pay all of this overtime when you could probably get by hiring new workers, new corrections officers,” said state Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville. “At least you would be more fully staffed and I wouldn’t think it would cost you a lot more. We’ve tried to emphasize that to the department, and they seem to agree, but then not a lot happens.”
Those safety and financial issues are their main concerns, but area leaders also say that adding people could help Southern Illinois’ chronic unemployment and underemployment problem by adding much-needed, good-paying jobs to the payroll.
IDOC’s Shaer said there weren't greater savings in fiscal year 2014 because of several factors. The factors included a court ruling in favor of the union that represents prison workers — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME — to pay wage and overtime rate increases suspended by the administration because of a lack of funds.
The average wage rate for overtime went from $40.69 to $44.48 per hour for correctional officers under that ruling. He said other factors that affected payouts included seven flu outbreaks increasing sick calls in the recently ended fiscal year, harsh winter conditions and an unusually high number of inmates requiring standard security escorts to court or the hospital.
“All of those things, which were nobody’s fault, occurred at very high levels at fiscal (year) '14 and contributed to not lowering the overtime as much as we expected,” he said.
Workers calling in sick to work at unusually high rates was also problematic, he said. For example, at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, there were 407 staff call-offs from 7 a.m. on New Year's Eve through the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on New Year's Day. That cost more than $83,000 in overtime.
"You get these call-offs and what are we supposed to do," Shaer said. "We've examined the area and the weather was not the significant factor. The weather affected one shift."
'Comes down to staff'
Anders Lindall, director of public affairs for AFSCME Council 31, said the union has been working with the administration on the overtime issue, and during the last couple of years, “We’ve had increasing cooperation from the administration.”
Still, he said, the crux of the issue is a staffing problem.
“Ultimately it comes down to staff,” he said. “There simply isn’t enough staff to work all of the posts that are required in these around-the-clock operations. As a result, the prisons rely all too often on costly overtime.”
Most overtime is voluntary, not forced; however, overtime can be mandated in an emergency. Lindall said that “one would be mistaken to ascribe the motivation for volunteering to work overtime purely to money.” Instead, he said, it’s about a commitment to get the job done with the resources at hand.
“You don’t work in a prison to get rich,” he said. “People choose corrections as a profession because they’re dedicated to service, because they want to make their community safer and they put their lives on the line every day when they put on that uniform and go behind the walls.”
Still, there's a rub within the union with some members who are enjoying the financial perks of the overtime and do not want to see it diminished.
And Shaer said it's rarely the case where workers take voluntary overtime out of an obligation to help out coworkers.
“We respect that there may be some times when an employee wants to help out others by volunteering for overtime. But that’s rare and, in fact, it’s virtually impossible for those employees to shortchange their colleagues by not accepting overtime because we have plenty of employees on the roster to volunteer for overtime in almost every case,” Shaer said.
Attrition another factor
Attrition is another major problem the department faces, he said. “People are entitled to retire when they choose to retire and sometimes we’re hit with abnormally high retirements,” he said. “We can’t control that and neither can the union.”
Last fiscal year, 912 employees retired, of which 540 were security staff; only 762 retirements were anticipated. Shaer said that to combat the rush of retirements, the department held five cadet classes last fiscal year. Some 660 new correctional officers graduated, and others were hired to fill non-security vacancies.
Despite that, the department ended the fiscal year 158 positions below its authorized head count target for all employees.
Moving forward, Shaer said IDOC "continues to be supported by Gov. (Pat) Quinn in its hiring efforts" and anticipates a more normal attrition level in fiscal year 2015, which began July 1. New cadet classes will graduate Sept. 12 and Oct. 31. The department estimates overtime payouts will fall to between $50 million and $52 million, he said. That's more in line with the fiscal year 2012 figure of $46.8 million.
Randy Hellmann is a retired 32-year veteran of the Illinois Department of Corrections, who last served at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, and is currently president of AFSME Local 943.
He said that while the department isn’t where it needs to be, there have been improvements in staffing levels over the last year.
“It’s a move in the right direction,” he said, noting there’s still room for improvement. “This is about staff safety and security and people’s families.”
-- Adam Testa of The Southern Illinoisan staff contributed to this report.