Contract negotiations stall as corrections officers seek competitive pay

  • The Women’s Prison behind the State Prison for Men on North State Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Monday, August 28, 2017

Contract negotiations between the governor’s office and a union representing state corrections officers are still stalled several months after the union declared an impasse.

Teamsters Local 633, which represents nearly 400 officers, said New Hampshire’s prison system is in “deep crisis because of an inability to attract and retain corrections officers.” The union, whose contract expired June 30, said the staffing shortage is a major public safety problem that must be addressed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

“We took Governor Sununu at his word when he said he was going to fully staff and fully fund the state prison system, and he’s done neither,” said Jeffrey Padellaro of Teamsters Local 633. “He comes out of business, and he should understand that the only way you can encourage people to work with you is by being competitive in the job market.”

New Hampshire corrections officers’ starting salaries begin at $34,424, with the addition of $1,300 in hazardous duty pay. Comparatively, a new officer at the Concord Police Department, who is uncertified and has no prior experience, makes $48,609. The pay gap nearly doubles when compared to corrections officers working at New Hampshire’s federal prison in Berlin and in Massachusetts facilities.

The state’s Department of Corrections requested funding for 75 new positions to open the new women’s prison in Concord later this year. However, the Legislature eliminated one position and left 19 of the 74 positions unfunded, meaning the department can hire only 55 new positions in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Due to the staffing shortage, the women’s prison is not expected to open until spring 2018, even though the building will be ready in a couple of months.

The governor’s legal counsel, John Formella, said in a statement this week that the two-year budget for the corrections department includes a nearly 10 percent increase, which is one of the largest for any department. That money will fund the 55 new positions, as well as the new canine drug detection unit and other capital investments aimed at enhancing officers’ safety, he said.

“In the collective bargaining process, the Governor has made every effort to reach a fair resolution by putting a number of proposals on the table. These proposals have included a nearly 10 percent wage increase, which the Teamsters rejected,” Formella said.

But that wage increase came with strings attached, Padellaro said. The governor’s office offered an across-the-board wage increase of 10 percent, although the net gain was only about 3 percent because decreases were proposed to shift differential pay and hazard pay, he explained.

“If Governor Sununu wants to give us a 10 percent wage adjustment, have him put it on the table and we’ll discuss it,” Padellaro said.

The corrections department has struggled over the last few years to recruit enough people to guard the state’s three prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown.

The Concord men’s prison requires a minimum of 277 staff members to maintain critical operations, but the facility currently has fewer than 190 uniformed staffers, the Teamsters said. A total of 371 officers is needed to operate at a normal activity level.

To make up for the shortage, prison guards have been forced to work overtime shifts. While employees are prevented from logging more than 16 hours in a row without an eight-hour break, many guards have to work double shifts multiple times a week, Padellaro said. As a result, department overtime spending has skyrocketed in recent years, from $3.3 million in 2009 to $9.1 million in 2015.

While overtime costs to secure the state prisons have climbed, administrators have said they can’t accurately track what specifically is driving the increase. Anything from sick leave to job vacancies can prompt the use of overtime, officials noted.

The department is still operating with an outdated payroll system that uses paper time cards, and will continue to do so until new software becomes available, spokesman Jeff Lyons said. This year’s budget includes funding for new scheduling software, which will be used by multiple state agencies including Corrections.

Because contract negotiations continue to stall, state officials and union representatives will work with an appointed “fact finder,” whose job it will be to examine all aspects of the dispute and to offer a proposed solution.

Until a new two-year contract is reached, the prior one will remain in effect by agreement.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)