In an uncommon display of solidarity between management and labor, both the Lancaster County Prison administration and union called on county commissioners to raise the starting wage for correctional officers.
Union leadership offered an additional harsh rebuke of the county’s policies, which they said have not addressed the ongoing staffing crisis. The crisis is ruining families and endangering the lives of the remaining correctional officers, they said.
“We’re not robots and it is inhumane the way we are working,” Miguel Albino, president of the correctional officers’ union, told the commissioners at Thursday’s prison board meeting.
The county recently implemented a bonus program for prison guards, but the commissioners indicated Thursday they might also consider an “unprecedented” raising of wages before the current contract ends in mid-2022.
Currently, the prison is down 86 officers from a full complement of 228. To cope with the crisis, officers are frequently mandated to work double eight-hour shifts.
Many officers work several 16-hour shifts in a week.
Albino said back-to-back shifts are taking a severe physical and emotional toll on him and his officers. He said many have to drive home with their car windows open or singing with the radio just to stay awake, and he himself recently had a near-death experience driving home from a double shift when he fell asleep and rear-ended an 18-wheeler, demolishing his vehicle.
The staffing crisis is also having an impact on officers’ home lives. Albino read a letter from one officer who said her daughter told her she wanted to go live with her father because her mom was always at work.
Albino cited a wish of his own for Thursday.
“Today is my son’s birthday, and hopefully I don’t get mandated (for additional work hours) and I can go home,” he said.
Warden Cheryl Steberger, a former officer herself, normally starts off her prison board presentation with an update on the prison’s population. But on Thursday, she instead began with an update on the staffing situation, and told the commissioners the starting wage was part of the issue.
The starting wage at Lancaster County Prison is $18.50 an hour, the lowest among the five surrounding Pennsylvania counties, which all pay $20 or more per hour to start.
In September the commissioners approved a hiring and retention incentive package -- which offers $7,500 to new officers and $7,500 to $12,000 to current correctional officers depending on length of service – as an attempt to address the problem. But in the time since the plan was implemented only eight new officers were hired and an additional 30 left.
Albino said after the meeting that the package was also unsuccessful in retaining officers because of stipulations added afterward, like requiring officers to stay for a year after receiving the bonus.
“While I greatly appreciate the response to our struggles … I am going to continue to push for a higher starting wage,” Steberger said. “We need to be competitive not only with our neighboring jails, but with our local businesses.”
Commissioner Josh Parsons and Controller Brian Hurter later pointed out that the starting wage was set by negotiation between the union and the county, and that unlike non-union county employees, for whom a raise could be given through an administrative process, a raise for the officers’ union requires renegotiation.
The current contract is set to expire in the middle of 2022.
Steberger said she was not asking for the entire contract to be renegotiated, but for a “side-agreement” -- a type of attachment to a contract tailored to a specific issue: addressing wages specifically.
“I am fully aware that my request is unprecedented, unheard-of, but (it is) one that is desperately needed and one that I strongly feel should come, and come swiftly,” she said.
While Commissioner Craig Lehman has said he was open to increasing the starting wage, Parsons and Commissioner Ray D’Agostino had said previously that wages should be addressed when the new contract in negotiated.
Lehman noted that Berks County, which has a similar complement level but higher starting wage, only has roughly 30 officer vacancies and Berks has not yet started offering bonuses as Lancaster has.
But on Thursday, Parsons and D’Agostino said they are now open to addressing wages sooner than that if that is what is necessary and where conversations with the union lead. Union leaders and county officials are currently in talks over the issue.
“It’s step by step,” Parsons said. “We did the incentive package, if that doesn’t work we’re going to keep moving on, we’re going to keep doing different things. So am I open to addressing the start rate before the end of this union contract? If that’s what needs to be done, I’m open to it. That is an unprecedented step. We’re in unprecedented times. We never open up union contracts.”
But the union says there is not time for the county to wait to see if other methods work.
“What else are we waiting for?” asked Marcus Jones, the union’s vice president. “I feel like we are inching our way up to what is increasing the wage. And at this rate we don’t have many more months to wait for you guys to try this out and then it doesn’t work, try (that) out, because you’ve turned us into part-time parents. Your job may be great as a commissioner, but stay ’til midnight five days a week. … You guys aren’t really helping us out. That’s not helping us. We are 90 to 80 officers short."