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Mandatory Overtime: Corrections Dirty Little Secret?
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 11/06/2017

Clock I recently talked to a corrections sergeant who told me that he had really cut down on the amount of overtime that he was working in a week; he cut back to doing no more than three double shifts weekly. I was aghast. My first question was, “Cut back from what?” The answer was that he usually worked at least five extra shifts a week, and almost always worked one of his days off.

From national news coverage and from our conversations with corrections staff across the country, it appears that this type of schedule (regular and frequent mandatory overtime) has become the norm for all too many corrections officers.

Most people know that over-the-road truck drivers have to keep strict logs regarding the number of hours they drive. When they have reached their max for the day or week, they pull over and rest. This makes sense to anyone else driving down the road, because we don’t want a fatigued semi-truck driver plowing into us on the interstate. The public safety issue is readily apparent.

Why then is the public safety issue not readily apparent to everyone about the risk that an exhausted corrections workforce is creating? Perhaps it is because the incidents don’t happen on the open road, but behind barriers. Perhaps it is because the number of incidents that are exacerbated by an exhausted workforce are not reported to the public or even identified. Either way, corrections line staff know the impact that fatigue has upon their safety and the safety of the inmate population.

Some systems have significant monetary incentives to persuade staff to work extra shifts. In agencies where overtime pay is dependable, timely, and significant, corrections staff may get sucked into the culture that encourages 80-90 hour work weeks.

Then, these same officers see the extra money and grow to depend upon it to support themselves and their families. I have talked to many staff throughout the country that have to work at least three extra shifts per pay period just to meet their financial commitments. These extra shifts are no longer “extra.” This type of strategy to increase their income is found in systems where the correctional officer salary is very high and also in systems where the correctional officer salary is very low.

Corrections leaders should understand the impact of fatigue upon their facilities, but often they don’t look deep enough into their own systems to examine the actual problem. I understand firsthand the issues that cause a cycle of fatigue which stems from staff working way beyond the 40-hour work week. I promoted through the ranks from officer to the position of Warden during my career. However, it wasn’t until I was appointed to Warden at two particular facilities that I experienced a mandatory overtime process. All of the other facilities in which I worked during my career had no such process, because the shifts were covered efficiently by assigned staff. So, I was shocked to hear at these high security facilities, the “call-off” rate was so high that a system was in place to force staff to work extra shifts. In fact, the number of extra shifts that these staff were working was often 2-3 times a week. As the new warden, it was difficult for me to understand how these two particular facilities were so different from the rest of the department, that such a work week was required. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that this agency did not routinely pay overtime, but rather it promised comp time. The comp time rarely was actually given, so twice a year all the overtime had to be paid out. This meant that the overtime payment was not timely and was often very heavily taxed. Therefore, the staff who had worked so hard didn’t see the monetary compensation as worth the effort.

I began a process to fully understand the issues associated with the call-off rate at these high security facilities, and what I found was that my employees were exhausted. They may have to work a double shift on their Monday, but by Thursday they were sick from fatigue, so they would not report to work. Then, of course, another person had to work a double shift to compensate and the cycle continued. The obvious answer was that we needed more staff. I lobbied for additional positions and was finally able to get 12 extra positions on a temporary basis. I really believed that the extra people would help my staff get rested, and then the cycle of absenteeism would stop. I was wrong. As soon as the word of 12 extra bodies was heard, the call-off rate doubled. It was not uncommon for my facility to have 20 people, out of 60 positions, working a double shift.

This increase in call-offs was foreseeable. After all, the staff who had been reporting to work in a state of exhaustion, thought they finally had support to get some rest. However, the numbers of staff who had been hanging on until relief was provided far exceeded the number of extra positions I was given.

This story is not surprising to any corrections officer reading this, but the political backstory to this cycle caught me off-guard. All of a sudden this problem (which had been occurring for years) was because I was a bad leader. If I was a good leader, all of my staff would be at work, right? No one wanted to listen when I said that my staff were under a different kind of stress working in high security, and that they were fatigued. No one wanted to listen that perhaps we should actually follow the ACA standards and create a rotation process to remove staff from segregation units after a set amount of time. (Did I mention that I had a lot of staff who had worked in segregation for over ten straight years?)

No, in fact the story was that, (1) I was a bad leader, and (2) that my staff were taking advantage of the extra employees to abuse their sick leave. The attack upon my leadership ability and my staff’s commitment to their job was a typical bureaucratic response which enabled everyone to ignore the bigger issues. First, these corrections officers were human beings and needed rest and support to be able to continue in this highly demanding line of work. Second, the impact that these exhausted staff had upon the inmates and any possible rehabilitation efforts was never discussed.

A primary job of any corrections officer is to model pro-social methods of dealing with life. It is hard to think of pro-social actions when one is struggling to remain alert. It is also hard to model productive and responsible work ethics when one is struggling to maintain any type of relationships outside of work or even to take care of their bodies with exercise and a balanced diet. It is often not discussed that these exhausted staff cannot possibly be having a positive impact upon the inmates or even on maintaining the security of the facility.

I have more questions than answers regarding the issues around frequent/regular mandatory overtime for corrections line staff. I do know that many agencies are facing a crisis in staffing. I also know that the solution is more complicated than hiring more staff or increasing salaries to retain staff—although these pieces are definitely part of the answer. I also know that until corrections leaders look deeper at this problem and commit to finding a long-term fix, this issue will not disappear. The toll mandatory overtime is taking upon the individual corrections employees is too great. As corrections professionals, we owe it to the public, our inmates, and mostly to our staff to fix this problem.

Editor’s Note: Staff shortages in corrections workplaces, especially in correctional institutions, are a persistent challenge for both administrators and line staff. The need of the human body for adequate sleep in order to function well and to remain healthy is undeniable, inescapable, and non-negotiable. In a future issue of the Correctional Oasis recent research will be presented on the effects of insufficient sleep and shift work on workers’ health. Based on these and other findings, we are coming to believe that negative health consequences of chronic partial sleep deprivation of the corrections workforce is at least as serious as staff’s exposure to traumatic material as “part of the job.”

And here’s an anonymous note related to staff’s attempts to deal with chronic sleep shortages:

“As I consumed my regimented energy drink for the day, it got me thinking …. This is another seriously damaging vice amongst corrections staff. A lot of us are totally dependent on them. More so than alcohol. I couldn’t survive the night shift without them. Certainly not when I get mandated for a second shift. I know people who will consume 2-3 during a 16-hour shift. Has there been any research on the effects of long-term consumption of energy drinks in corrections staff?”


This article as been reprinted with permission from the October 2017 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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