Allegheny County tries to lock down soaring jail overtime costs

Some guards have already made their annual salary this year; one-fifth of the corrections officers are on family and medical leave

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For the second year in a row, overtime costs at the Allegheny County Jail are soaring.

It's a trend that is prompting county officials to take a closer look at the 86 correctional officers who are on family and medical leave, 19 percent of the jail's 454 officers and far more employees than in any other county department.

"It's a very difficult work environment. I give them all the credit in the world. But we have to reduce overtime," county Manager Jim Flynn said. "If people who are on the payroll come to work, you can cut the overtime."

From 2004 to last year, the jail had a 20 percent increase in the number of officers on medical leave. Overtime increased, from $2.1 million to more than $3 million during that time.

With a $45 million budget this year, the jail's overtime expenses are again on pace to top $3 million. Two officers already have earned more than their annual salary due to overtime.

A surge in the inmate population is contributing to the problem. The number of inmates reached 2,640 June 22, up from 2,392 a year before. Warden Ramon Rustin attributes the change to an increase in the number of arrests in the city.

Many guards are being forced to work beyond their set shifts as the jail tries to meet the state's recommended ratio of one guard for every 15 inmates. During a recent overnight shift, which is typically covered by about 100 officers, 17 officers worked overtime, Mr. Rustin said.

As of June 23, the highest earner was Richard O'Donnell, an officer since 1991. He has earned $51,235 this year. Before overtime, his annual salary is $47,238.

Mr. Flynn said the county was accepting bids for a third-party administrator who could evaluate all medical leave cases in the county. The jail would be one of the first departments to participate in the program.

"We just want to make sure we're working with the doctors and getting our employees into the right treatment programs," he said.

According to Mr. Flynn, 325 of Allegheny County's 6,707 employees have medical permission to take leave. The jail has more than a quarter of the employees eligible to take the leave.

Chuck Mandarino, a corrections officer and president of the Allegheny County Independent Prison Employees Union, argues that the county places too much emphasis on those numbers.

He said many jail guards were on "intermittent" leave. They often work regular shifts, but, when necessary, they use sick days or vacation time to treat their own medical problems or the illnesses of a family member. Once they deplete their sick days and vacation time, they take unpaid time.

Under federal law, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of leave during a one-year period.

"The county always points to family leave," Mr. Mandarino said. "That's not addressing the issue. We're short officers. We have to hire officers."

He cites a consultant's report, finished shortly after the jail opened a decade ago, which suggested that the 16-story structure have at least 470 full-time guards.

But the jail has been moving away from that number. Four years ago, it had 420 full-time and 83 part-time correctional officers. It now has 403 full-time and 51 part-time officers.

Those numbers have started a vicious cycle, Mr. Mandarino said. The jail is understaffed before anyone calls in sick, leading to forced overtime. The overtime, in turn, adds more stress to an already stressful job and leads to health problems and absenteeism among employees.

Mr. Rustin said he'd like to move closer to 420 full-time officers again.

"But it's hard to justify," he said. "Our officers use a lot of sick time."

In October 2004, Mr. Rustin left his post as deputy warden of security at the Chester County Prison in Eastern Pennsylvania to head the Allegheny County Jail. Correctional officers at the Chester County facility, he said, had a better attendance record, partly because of a merit-based pay system.

Allegheny County correctional officers average about 13 sick days a year. In the late 1990s, the jail's employees averaged about eight days a year, Mr. Rustin said.

About 160 officers called in sick during the weekend of the Super Bowl, Mr. Flynn said.

Mr. Rustin asked for funding for more officers last year. The county boosted his budget from $42.7 million to $45 million, but most of the increase is covering much-needed maintenance work at the jail, including new chiller machines, which heat and cool the building.

The warden does have approval to hire more part-time officers. A new training class will start in several weeks.

But overtime is likely to ensure that the county lockup goes over budget for the fourth year in a row. County officials are projecting that the jail will miss its $33.4 million target for personnel costs by at least $500,000.


Chart: County employees on family medical leave

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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