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Nebraska Prison Employee Labor Agreement Contains Unusual Provision

On December 27, 2019, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, the union that represents Nebraska Department of Corrections (DOC) workers, announced a “Letter of Agreement” that provides for increased worker pay and creates a new career ladder for DOC guards.

The letter contained an unusual provision — that the union must oppose any bill proposed in the Nebraska Legislature related to the “classification and compensation” of DOC guards. Should any such bill pass the Legislature, the agreement becomes null and void.

Like many prison systems throughout the nation, the DOC has struggled with poor pay for guards, resulting in staffing shortages that lead to extended shifts, mandatory overtime and canceled vacations. The poor working conditions stressed guards, causing more of them to quit, and driving a higher turnover rate.

The agreement between the union and the state increases starting pay for corporals and unit caseworkers from $18.44 per hour to $20. Sergeant starting pay rises from $20.60 per hour to $24. The agreement also allows those three groups of workers to receive raises, based upon experience and contingent upon satisfactory work reviews, adding $1 to their hourly wages each year for up to seven years.

Further, the DOC can give workers employed at high-security prisons annual bonuses of up to 10 percent of base pay, and new hires with sufficient correctional, law enforcement, or military experience can start a step above the usual starting pay.

The agreement also allows the DOC to implement 12-hour shifts at high-security prisons without having to declare an emergency, as was previously required, but only for up to 70 percent of their positions. Other prisons will have eight- or ten-hours shifts.

The reason the union agreed to the unusual provision was the concern that pending legislation could undermine the negotiated agreement.

“We were trying to solve the problem by negotiating in good faith, and the Governor’s Office and his administration didn’t want to cut a deal with us and then have the legislature come back and do something different,” said Lincoln attorney Gary Young, who represents the union.

The DOC has been experiencing a crisis with 30 percent of staff positions vacant and some guards having to work multiple 16-hour shifts each week to fill essential positions. The DOC was having to bus guards from Omaha to Tecumseh, pay large amounts of overtime hours, and declare “staffing emergencies” at some prisons so it could change from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. Meanwhile, guards were leaving the DOC in droves for better-paying jobs at county jails. Even with the pay increases, the DOC’s salaries will be less than some county jails, which pay up to $3 more per hour than the pre-agreement DOC wages.

A staffing shortage was among the reasons given for increased unrest at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. Doug Koebernick, the Nebraska DOC’s inspector general, said developments there were “alarming” and “disturbing.”

He said the problems at the 1,300-bed facility may exceed those at the Tecumseh State Prison, which has had two disturbances with fatalities since 2015. He noted that the prison was at 180 percent of design capacity, compared to 105 percent at Tecumseh. There were also more problems with contraband cellphones and drugs at Lincoln.