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Published: Sunday, November 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Jail deputies' overtime a costly burden on county

EVERETT -- The people who run the Snohomish County Jail aren't just struggling with concerns about inmate safety. They're also wrestling with a costly reliance on overtime -- a chronic headache that so far defies an easy cure.
Through late August, the jail already had run up a $1.9 million tab for overtime for this year. That's well on pace to surpass the $2.3 million spent in 2012.
Since 2010, county taxpayers have spent roughly $9 million compensating corrections deputies and other jail employees who have pulled extra shifts, working at close quarters supervising inmates.
While many of the 210,000 hours of overtime logged by jail employees were mandatory -- and necessary to cover vacancies from staff departures, sick leave and difficulty recruiting new hires -- some corrections deputies have been volunteering with gusto.
A Herald analysis of jail payroll records supplied by the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office found:
  • Dozens of corrections deputies are working so much overtime that some have effectively doubled their take-home pay. One corrections officer has brought in an additional $219,000 since 2010. After overtime, his annual take-home pay has been about equal to that of an elected county council member.
  • Overtime at the jail is institutionalized. For example, as a result of binding arbitration in a labor dispute, the county must pay all corrections workers 10 minutes of overtime during each shift. That scheduling overlap helps people keep current on what is happening behind bars, but with workers staffing shifts around the clock, every day of the year, the mandated minutes add up fast.
  • Under labor practices in place at the county for years, at least 60 jail workers since 2010 have received pay for overtime hours they didn't work, based on seniority.
The sheriff's office acknowledges that's due to mistakes made by supervisors deciding who should be given volunteer overtime work. The errors appear to happen a lot -- nearly 100 episodes in recent years totalling nearly 600 hours of pay.
In the most striking example, one jail worker was paid the equivalent of nearly two full work weeks for overtime shifts worked by somebody else, records show.
That means taxpayers footed the costs twice -- once for the person who staffed the shift and once for the person who did not.
"To pay somebody for not working is offensive," said Sheriff Ty Trenary, who was appointed in July.
The labor contract at the jail, in place long before Trenary took over, requires administrators to offer overtime hours to the most senior deputies who have signed up for extra work. A similar "skipping" provision exists in the contract between the state and prison corrections officers.
The practice at the county jail -- apparently put in place years ago to resolve a labor grievance -- results in senior Snohomish County corrections deputies being paid if they are inadvertently skipped over.
"The 586 hours, that is human error," sheriff's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
In fairness, she said, it can be difficult to know who to call to offer overtime to, because navigating contract language and labor laws can seem like an "incredibly complex chess game."
The sheriff's office wants to buy new software that automates scheduling to account for labor laws and union rules.
"It's not that it will be perfect, but it should be a vast improvement," Ireton said.
Still, county officials say the top priority is enacting suggestions from the National Institute of Corrections to make the jail safer for inmates and staff alike.
The county requested the reviews after the deaths of two inmates, both in their 20s.
The jail came under scrutiny after their deaths there led to multimillion-dollar claims against the county. A third family hired an attorney to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a mentally ill man inside the county jail.
The push now is on to beef up corrections staff -- particularly in jail health care -- while dialing down the inmate population.
The jail operates 24 hours a day year-round. Shifts must be covered even if there aren't enough corrections deputies. The sheriff doesn't have the option of closing down parts of the jail because he's short workers.
"We can't just put (inmates) in bunk beds, stacked like cord wood. It's not constitutional," Trenary said.
There are about 350 corrections employees now. The Herald's analysis found that about $4.3 million of the overtime pay in recent years went to compensate roughly four dozen corrections deputies.
Each of those men and women were notable for each having amassed at least $50,000 in overtime pay since 2010. A dozen received more than $100,000.
Most of those workers have seniority, and under union contracts have first dibs to sign up for extra work when it is available.
The jail's top overtime earner averaged more than $57,000 in overtime pay each year, effectively doubling the money he otherwise would bring home.
Since 2010, he's logged a whopping 5,100 hours of overtime. His overtime shifts each year have been the equivalent of stacking an additional 8.5 months of full-time work on top of his regularly scheduled shifts, the analysis found.
The sheriff's office asked that the names of current corrections deputies not be published for this story out of concern for their safety.
Like several of the top earners, the corrections deputy who was paid the most for overtime immigrated to America. He said he is living in an apartment, building up his savings and retirement.
He gives to charity and also sends money back home to Africa.
"I was raised in a place where hard work is a part of being responsible," he said. "The harder you work, you are very responsible."
The county has wrestled to contain jail overtime spending for years, under different elected leaders: former county executives Bob Drewel and Aaron Reardon, and now John Lovick, who also ran the jail as sheriff. The issue gets attention when budgets are broken or other bad news at the jail draws fresh eyes.
A 2002 analysis of overtime spending by The Herald found a pattern similar to what's happening today. Many of the people volunteering to work the most overtime then, too, were recent immigrants. At the time, one of the top overtime workers wound up facing criminal charges for on-duty sex with female inmates.
In recent years, one of the jail's top 10 overtime earners has been Abner C. Canda. He went to work at the jail in 2007. Last year, he logged more than 1,100 hours of overtime, bringing in an extra $48,000.
Canda, 59, was fired earlier this year after he was charged with first-degree custodial sexual misconduct for allegedly trading homemade cookies for sexual favors from a 22-year-old inmate.
It is a felony for corrections officers to engage in sexual activity with inmates. Canda's trial is scheduled for next month.
The sheriff's office doesn't see a particular connection between overtime and the potential for workplace problems.
"There are lots of professions where people work for more than 40 hours a week," Ireton said.
But the sheriff's office also knows that a reliance on overtime is making it harder to hire and retain corrections workers -- setting up a cycle where the extra work is necessary just to keep operating.
When jail managers can't get volunteers to cover shifts, they tap the least-senior employees.
New hires, in particular, can find themselves struggling to adapt to a schedule where they have little ability to make plans for their time away from work.
"Imagine that was your life. You'd feel like an inmate," Trenary said.
Inmate overcrowding, a factor often blamed for the outpouring of overtime, has been a historic challenge.
Thirty years ago, the county closed the jail that then took up the fifth floor in the courthouse. At the time, the average daily jail population was 120.
Fast forward to present day and there are two towering lockups that often house a total of 1,200 inmates a day, 10 times the number from 1983.
The National Institute of Corrections concluded the jail has been operating "at or near its maximum capacity for almost 12 years."
The federal report found that inadequate staffing, overcrowding and a health policy in need of "comprehensive reform" have combined to pose medical risks for inmates.
It urged the county to take "immediate steps to reduce jail crowding." That's what the jail leaders now are doing.
Earlier this month, the jail began booking fewer people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, such as petty thefts. The daily count dropped from 1,101 Nov. 1 to 1,004 by mid-month. Jail officials say the target daily count is 1,025 inmates and the ideal count would be 990.
The federal experts recommended that the county consider 12-hour shifts for corrections workers.
"It can reduce overall staffing costs, reduce sick leave and seems to improve morale," the report said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431, north@heraldnet.com
Story tags » Snohomish County governmentSheriff

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