Union: Forced overtime at Mich. women's prison is a safety threat
The double shifts — a long-standing problem — have cost the Michigan DOC $12.4M in overtime in the last two years
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
LANSING, Mich. – Most days, Amber Dotson gets up at 4:30 a.m. so she can get to the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti 10 minutes before the start of her 6 a.m. shift.
Not long after Dotson, a corrections officer, starts making her rounds, a list is posted of who will be required, because of staffing shortages, to keep working beyond the end of the shift, at 2 p.m.
Most days, Dotson's name is on that list.
"These last few weeks, there was only one time I got out before 9 p.m," Dotson, 46, told the Free Press in an interview.
By the time Dotson gets home and is settled, it's often 10:30 p.m.. She hopes she can sleep — which she often can't — because she has to be up at 4:30 the next morning to do it all again.
It sometimes happens six days in a row, in a facility where Dotson and her overworked colleagues are surrounded by inmates who include career criminals and convicted killers.
"It's very stressful; very tiring — physically, mentally," Dotson said. "It really wears you out."
The double shifts — a long-standing problem — have cost the Michigan Department of Corrections $12.4 in overtime in the last two years, plus an ongoing lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department, alleging gender discrimination.
Now, as the department continues to struggle to fill vacant positions, Dotson's union is threatening to go to arbitration — and possibly to court — claiming the excessive forced overtime threatens officer safety.
Though the Corrections Department faces officer shortages around the state, the situation is aggravated at the women's prison because only female officers can work in the housing units because of concerns about sexual abuse.
Union officials say the constant forced overtime has become a serious safety issue, both inside the prison —where officers must tend to fights and other emergencies — and on the surrounding freeways as exhausted women officers try to drive home.
"This is a prison. ... This isn't a Kohl's," said Jeff Foldie, director of legal affairs for the Michigan Corrections Organization.
"We literally have a Department of Corrections that has a facility that is overworking their people to the point of exhaustion where they can't do their job, let alone function in life.
"If this were the State Police ... the taxpayers would be livid."
The Free Press has previously interviewed officers who quit because they couldn't stand the constant forced overtime. Dotson is the first officer to go on the record while still on the job.
Chris Gautz, the department spokesman, said the agency is doing all it can to address the shortage of female officers, actively recruiting and holding regular training academies. But the situation is aggravated by a wave of retirements by officers brought in during a 1980s hiring push and a low unemployment rate that gives qualified potential hires other choices.
Women's Huron Valley, the state's only prison for women, houses about 2,200 female inmates who cover the full range of criminal records and security levels. Inmates complain the prison is overcrowded, with storage areas and day rooms converted to cells.
The prison is allocated the equivalent of 364 full-time officer positions. But of those, 52 are vacant, 29 are on leaves of absence, three are on military leave, and 139 are on Family and Medical Leave Act intermittent leave, Gautz said.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees — such as pregnant women with morning sickness or those with chronic conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy — up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year, with no threat of job loss.
Over the last two years, the women's prison lost 59,294 hours to officers taking intermittent leave under the law. That's equivalent to 28 full-time officers being away for the entire two-year period.
"I hear anecdotally that people go out on FMLA because they're tired of the overtime," Gautz said. "That only exacerbates the issue for the people who are left."
Byron Osborn, the union president, said some supervisors have suggested officers are abusing the FMLA, and "it offends me," he said. The constant forced overtime means officers are "pushed into a corner," and when coming to and from work, "they're driving around the freeways and city streets like zombies."
Gautz said he isn't accusing anyone of fraudulently claiming FMLA leave, which he said would be difficult to prove.
"It's certainly not a good situation to have people that are working those kinds of hours," he said.
What to do about it?
Osborn said the administration hasn't embraced any of its recommendations, which include giving new recruits more time to obtain required college credits while on the job; moving to a 12-hour shift, which Osborn believes would attract female officers from other Michigan prisons because of the shorter workweek; making sure prison jobs that can be staffed by men or women are staffed only by men; giving incentives to women who work more voluntary overtime, and allowing new recruits to start working overtime sooner.
Cuts over the years to state worker benefits mean that even newly trained and hired officers often don't stay on the job long, Osborn said. A good state pension was phased out for new hires long ago, workers pay more for their health insurance coverage, and new hires no longer receive post-retirement health care, he said.
Gautz said the prison is studying the union's proposals. But he said 12-hour shifts, which are used as an experiment in a few Michigan prisons, don't work unless a prison is fully staffed, which Women's Huron Valley is not.
"We're bringing new folks in all the time," Gautz said.
"Law enforcement nationwide has seen shortages. Corrections isn't for everybody."
Dotson said her children are grown, but the situation is even worse for officers with young children, who miss out on extracurricular activities and other key aspects of home life.
She said she has seen officers struggling to keep their eyes open and knows of vehicular accidents on the way home from the prison. Though the prison knows about all the overtime and, in fact, requires it, "if an emergency happens, you have to be ready," she said. If she's not, "they're going to come down on me."
In what little free time she has, Dotson said she is taking online university courses in the hopes of getting a promotion to a corrections job without forced overtime.
Dotson's base salary is $52,000, but she said she'd already grossed $44,000 by July of this year. The extra money is of little value, because there is no time to enjoy it, she said.
"By the time we get an off day, we're just too tired to do anything, whether it's personal life or family," she said. "We're just too tired. It's basically our day to catch up on sleep and rest."
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