A few years after Tom Ferguson retired from The Hershey Co., where he worked as director of global strategic sourcing, he decided he wasn't quite done working. But what to do, he thought.
Ferguson, 65, now works as a bailiff at the Lancaster County Courthouse. Like motor oil keeping an engine running smoothly, bailiffs ensure that the court system continues to operate efficiently.
But like other county offices, the bailiffs have been facing employee shortages in recent years, due in part to low unemployment, Bailiff Supervisor Pattilyn Sprout said. A job posting on the county website lists the starting hourly pay rate for a bailiff at $9.10. Sprout said there is a step increase after six months of probation.
The department is down seven employees, and Sprout is hoping to bring on new employees. She said that while the job often attracts retirees, likely because of its one week on, one week off schedule, the part-time position is open to anyone.
“I think people must enjoy the job because I seem to be able to retain employees for a long time,” she said.
Not a ‘typical’ retirement job
“I didn't want pursue kind of the typical job in retirement that I’ve seen other folks do,” Ferguson said. “I thought this seems really interesting and different. … That’d be neat to kind of get an up-close, everyday look at judicial proceedings. What a fascinating job that would be.”
And now, having worked there for three years, he said he still finds the job fascinating.
“It’s certainly not like it is on TV,” he said.
Bailiffs are responsible for keeping track of cases and who is present for them, setting up and closing courtrooms, running files between self-represented plaintiffs and the judge and generally maintaining the smooth operation of the court.
They are likely to be the first person someone meets when they arrive at a courtroom.
At a recent "call of the list" proceeding, where attorneys come before the judge to discuss the status of their cases and if they will be going to trial, Ferguson donned a grey suit and blue and gold tie, and quietly kept the process moving along. Once, as two attorneys spoke in the gallery, he motioned for them to quiet their conversation, respectfully, of course.
John Mummert, 66, is one such employee. He’s been there for eight years.
“Unless you're in a trial that runs for several days, you come in to a different proceeding just about every day, sometimes even different in the morning and the afternoon,” he said.
His favorites are support contempt and protection-from-abuse hearings, because they constantly move.
“You have a lot of people going in and out of the courtroom, trying to keep track of everyone, making sure the proceeding goes efficiently,” he said.
At a recent protection-from-abuse hearing, where civil litigants ask the court for protection from another person, Mummert stood watch over the courtroom with his bailiff badge clipped to his left breast pocket. In between ushering parties in and out, and keeping meticulous track of the cases on his clipboard, Mummert was in constant communication with Judge Jeffrey Conrad, keeping the court apprised of the status of each case and which case would be up next.
"The bailiffs, for me, are an indispensable tool as a liaison between the court and the parties," Conrad said.
A courtroom, for those who have never been in one, can be an intimidating environment.
Mummert and Ferguson try to assuage those anxieties.
“A lot of times, they’re coming in, they have a job to go to or they’re self-employed. They don’t want to be here,” Mummert said. “That's our job, to reassure them that the court system is working, even though you might not see it happening.”