by Kevin W. Bliss
On April 24, 2023, the board of Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County Prison unanimously recommended requiring extended shifts for five sergeants who supervise guards at the jail. That’s because after county lawmakers ended the hiring of part-time prison guards in 2021, mandated overtime for full-time guards cost more than $1.38 million the following year.
The following month, on May 22, 2023, county Controller Jeffrey Balzer questioned $175,000 in cost overruns on the prison’s contract with new healthcare provider PrimeCare Medical. The $20.9 million five-year agreement nearly doubled what the county was paying Wexford Health Sources before its contract ended in August 2022. PrimeCare’s contract caps outside services like doctor or hospital visits and prescription drug costs at $300,000 annually, but the prison blew through that in just six months.
Staffing levels at the lockup in Hempfield have been running around 80% since the change, forcing guards to work exorbitant amounts of overtime, including back-to-back eight-hour shifts. The overtime has nearly tripled some salaries. Senior guard Joseph Cueno earned $101,500 on top of his $59,134 base salary. Six of the county’s top 10 highest overtime earners in 2022 were prison guards.
County Human Resources Director Alexis Bevan said the jail currently employs only 128 of 159 positions to be considered fully staffed. Given an average population of 527 detainees in 2022, that leaves each guard watching four detainees on average, compared to just three for all U.S. jailers, according to federal statistics. See: Jail Inmates in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Off. of Justice Programs (2021).
Ryan Perry, acting president of United Mine Workers of America Local 522, the union representing the guards – but not their sergeants – said members have no choice but to take on extra shifts, “and it’s taken a toll on a lot of people.”
“Part-timers were used as relief when somebody was off sick or on vacation,” he said. “Now there’s nobody to come in for you.”
In 2022, guards and other prison employees accounted for more than 27% of the county’s $5 million in overtime costs. That total was $500,000 more than the next highest department’s overtime costs. Through April 1, 2023, the County had paid another $1.37 million in overtime, $374,000 of that to prison guards, putting it on track to pay $5.4 million by year-end.
Staffing levels have long been challenged at the county’s prison, with poor working conditions and pay blamed for a revolving door of hiring and firing.
Warden Bryan Kline said the recommended change would add two hours to each sergeant’s workweek, which would consist of three 12-hour shifts and an additional shift lasting six hours. With that, he said, “we will only have 10 overtime hours to pay each week (for sergeants). That’s less than we are paying now.”
Additional source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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