Wisc. corrections officers sue DOC over work rule

Allege that recent work policy doesn’t pay them for work they do before and after the policy considers them to be "on duty"

By Ed Treleven
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wisc. — Stripped of collective bargaining as a means to resolve disputes with the state two years ago, a group of state corrections officers filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday over a recent work rule that defines when they are considered “on duty.”

A group of 10 corrections officers from institutions across Wisconsin allege that a recent work policy doesn’t pay them for work they do before and after the policy considers them to be “on duty,” according to a lawsuit filed in Dane County Circuit Court.

The 10 are seeking to have the lawsuit certified as a class action that could include include more than 3,000 people.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a decision last month by the state Equal Rights Division in favor of a guard at Redgranite Correctional Institution ordering that back pay be awarded to compensate him for work time for which he was not paid because it fell outside the policy’s definition of “on duty.”

That guard, Paul Mertz, is not one of the 10 involved in the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

State Department of Corrections spokewoman Joy Staab said the department is aware of the lawsuit but would not comment at this time. She said the department is appealing the Equal Rights Division decision.

According to the lawsuit, the state Department of Corrections issued a policy on Jan. 29, 2012, stating that employees are considered “on duty when they are present at their assigned post/work location prepared to assume their duties at their designated start time.”

But the guards allege that it means they aren’t paid for pre-shift work that serves DOC’s interests, such as passing a security screening, participating in roll calls and fitness for duty checks, checking out and receiving equipment and traveling through prisons to their assigned posts, all while being ready to respond to emergency calls.

They also alleged they are not paid for post-shift work that includes communicating with relief officers, checking in work equipment and passing a security screening, again while being available for emergency calls.

The DOC’s failure to pay guards for that time is “willful and in bad faith,” the lawsuit states.

A class action lawsuit was filed because Act 10, signed by Gov. Scott Walker in March 2011, removed collective bargaining as a means to resolve disputes like this one, the lawsuit states. Individuals lack the means to file separate lawsuits, which would also be expensive to the state, the lawsuit states.

“Wisconsin 2011 Act 10 prohibits members of the class from collectively negotiating with the DOC to seek redress over issues of wages, hours and working conditions,” the lawsuit states. “This leaves a class action complaint as a sole means to seek redress from a neutral decision-maker.”

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