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California: Guards and Other Prison Workers Agree to Contract Changes in Effort to Avoid Losing Jobs

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plata v. Brown, which mandated that California comply with a lower-court order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of the design capacity of its 33 adult prisons within two years, California officials have embarked on the required downsizing of its penal system. As the prisoner population is reduced, there will be a reduced need for prison workers. To deal with this anticipated reduction, the state has begun negotiating contract amendments with a number of unions representing prison workers and parole agents. In exchange for agreeing to certain concessions, which the state estimate will save it about $13 million in fiscal year 2011-2012, the unions hope to keep job losses to a minimum.

Despite the concessions, however, certain jobs—including approximately 900 parole agent and parole support staff jobs—are sure to be eliminated as the state, in part of a move known as the realignment plan, shifts many of its adult parole responsibilities to local government.

The prison population reduction will not be uniform among the state’s prison. That is to say, the population at certain prisons (particularly the medical facilities) will be reduced to a greater extent than at other prisons. The result will be that certain prisons will end up overstaffed, while others (due perhaps to factors such as remoteness of the locale) will be understaffed.

One of the new contractual agreements is that guards at an overstaffed prison will be given an opportunity to volunteer to relocate to an understaffed prison, in lieu of being laid off. (In October 2011, there were five understaffed prisons, including New Folsom in Sacramento, Pelican Bay Prison near Crescent City, and High Desert State Prison near Susanville.) Those who volunteer will receive up to $7,500 to defray moving costs, substantially less than the $30,000 the state formerly doled out in such circumstances.

Officers who don’t wish to relocate can opt instead to join an “overtime avoidance” pool or to become “permanent-intermittent” employees.

Still, there will be some layoffs. In September 2001, the corrections department, which then employed 63,000 prison workers and parole agents, issued 2,100 warning notices. As the prison population is reduced, the department will issue more such notices, advising employees that they need to transfer or risk losing their jobs.

Ultimately, corrections employees will be allowed to bid for available jobs statewide based on seniority. Under previous contractual agreements, by contrast, an employee in one county could not displace a less-senior employee (in the same job classification) in another county.

Source: Jon Ortiz, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 19, 2011.

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