Corrections Officers Association anticipates state appeal
Jefferson City — After a lawsuit filed by their union, a jury has awarded $113.7 million to Missouri prison guards as compensation for unpaid work that they performed before and after their shifts, but the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which represents the Department of Corrections, says it is considering an appeal.
The class action lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court represents 13,000 current corrections officers or those who worked at the Department of Corrections since 2007, lead attorney Gary Burger said. The award is a combination of straight time and overtime, he said.
Gary Gross, executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association (MCOA), said the lawsuit was initiated by members Thomas Hootselle, Tim Huff, Beverly Stevenson, Amanda and Morgan Strange and Powell Meister, and others who signed onto the suit making it a “Class Action.”
Gross said the Association expects the state will appeal the verdict.
According to the lawsuit, when they arrive at work, guards have to go through a search and a metal detector, turn over cellphones, tablets and any personal property, and are in uniform and in close proximity to prisoners, or “on duty and expected to respond,” the whole time.
The lawsuit says the guards also have to follow exit procedures every day, communicate with the next shift and inventory weapons, ammunition and equipment in the case of vehicle patrol officers – all without pay.
“They require corrections officers to do certain pre-shift and post-shift activities ... but they don’t pay them for that,” Burger said. “This entry and exit time is the key time in the whole prison. That’s when contraband comes in. That’s when escapes happen.”
A 2013 Labor Department investigation found overtime violations for pre- and post-shift activity of more than $500,000 at one prison. But the department did not investigate or act on the federal report, citing the pending suit.
Attorneys for the state said the pre- and post-shift activities did not constitute “work” time under the union contract.
Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled Aug. 10 that the department was required to compensate the guards for the pre- and post-shift activities, and that their failure to do so was a beach of contract. Jurors were left only to decide how much the guards should be repaid.
“Just to have this claim and our position vindicated by the jury is just so gratifying for these men and women,” Burger said.
During the course of the lawsuit, Burger said, attorneys for the guards found evidence that the state didn’t pay officers for their pre- and post-shift work “because of the tremendous cost of it all.”
He said the department retaliated against those who complained.
FORGOTTEN POLICE FORCE
Prison officials have also battled an increase of overtime and a shortage of prison guards that prompted at least one inmate riot this year.
“This is the forgotten police force,” Burger said of the officers. Many are veterans who return to small towns and get “the best jobs they can,” only to be “ripped off.”
“We look forward to the Department of Corrections paying this verdict so that these officers ... can get paid the wages they’re owed,” Burger said. “We look forward to them changing their policy in the future.”
(Information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.)