Long hours for many staff at juvenile jails

Many front-line workers at the state-run juvenile jails are accustomed to working long hours.

Our safety is compromised and security is compromised and we are just doing our best to hold it together Sarah Lewoc, a youth service officer at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School

CtMirror.org

“Sixteen hour shifts are a norm,” said Sarah Lewoc, a youth service officer at CJTS.

“Sixteen hour shifts are a norm in this field. You’re used to it,” said Sarah Lewoc, a youth service officer at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.

Staff at CJTS worked nearly 80,000 hours over their normal work week last year – a 20 percent increase in overtime over two years prior.

The heavy use of overtime raises a number of questions, including whether it is cost-effective and whether it over-stresses staff, making them less effective in managing difficult situations with inmates.

Numerous youth service officers, who are the front-line staff members responsible for maintaining order and security at CJTS, are working such long hours they have more than doubled their income. In some instances, incomes topped six figures after factoring in time-and-a-half overtime pay.

One youth service officer who has worked for DCF for 17 years earned $69,700 in overtime last year, bringing his income to just over $130,000. One-in-four frontline staff earned more than $20,000 in overtime in the the fiscal year that ended July 1.

Two requests by The Connecticut Mirror since last week for how many hours were worked by employees who earned large amounts of overtime in specific weeks went unanswered by the Department of Children and Families, which operates CJTS and the neighboring Pueblo Unit for girls. How much employees were paid in overtime over the last four years was provided by the Office of the State Comptroller, which administers the state’s payroll system.

The culture and conditions of confinement at the state-run jails have been the focus of added scrutiny by state lawmakers in recent months after a state watchdog and mental health experts released an investigation that concluded staff were “unlawfully” restraining youth and putting them into seclusion.

What is driving increased overtime?

The jump in overtime between fiscal year 2013 and 2014 happened as the number of incarcerated youth at CJTS reached a 10-year high while the number of youth service officers available to work remained nearly unchanged.

“I was getting forced to work overtime every Saturday and Sunday,” said James Weatherby, a youth services officer of the double shifts he would have to work. “It’s a morale issue. We were getting killed with overtime.”

Of the $3.2 million spent on overtime last fiscal year, $2.6 million, or 81 percent, was paid to youth services officers and their supervisors. The agency spent $257,400 for overtime worked by medical and mental health staff and $129,800 for kitchen staff.

Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF declined interview requests to talk about why overtime has increased, whether there are limits on the hours staff can work, how it is determined who will be mandated to work overtime if there aren’t enough volunteers, and whether it is cheaper to use overtime instead of hiring additional staff.

In an email, Kleeblatt explained that hiring decisions rest with the governor’s budget office, the Office of Policy and Management.

“We don’t have the ability to just hire new staff. OPM has a say over that kind of thing,” said Kleeblatt.

Reports on staffing levels provided by OPM from the last three fiscal years show that while the number of full-time staff working at CJTS has remained at about 275, the number of unfilled full-time positions increased from eight to 18 between July 2013 and July 2014. Eleven of the 18 vacancies were youth service officer positions.

The governor’s budget office considers several things when determining whether to hire additional staff, a spokesman said. Those factors include the needs of the agency, the ability of existing staff to handle the workload, the readiness of the applicant pool and whether there is money in the agency’s budget.

By 2015, more officers had been hired, but an increase in staff unable to work because they were injured at work somewhat offset those additional hires.

Of the 288 staff injured at CJTS in the last year, 42 were working overtime when they were hurt, a review of workers’ compensation claims by The Connecticut Mirror found. Nearly all of those injuries took place while staff were physically restraining youths.

Kleeblatt said in an email that the increase in lost work time because of injury has also led to increased use of overtime.

“When staff miss work due to a workers compensation claim, it often requires that other workers fill the gap by working overtime. Based on seniority and qualifications for specific assignments, staff are given the opportunity to volunteer for overtime shifts. We believe that the process we use is fair and supports our staff to the fullest extent possible under the circumstances,” he wrote.

When there are not enough volunteers to work overtime, the union contract for front-line staff mandates employees with the shortest tenure be required to work. Employees who refuse to work assigned overtime can face disciplinary action.

The impact of long work days…

How staff treat incarcerated youths at state-run facilities has been the focus of several investigations throughout the years, including one released earlier this year by the Office of the Child Advocate that found staff were too frequently restraining and secluding youths.

The child advocate’s recent report did not look into issues surrounding the increased use of overtime, but a joint investigation by the previous child advocate and then-attorney general in 2002 did.

“Extraordinary overtime leads to significant stress and strain on the staff,” the report on that investigation said. It found hundreds of staff working more than 40 hours in overtime each pay period.

“These extraordinary overtime hours lead to significant stress and strain on staff that inevitably has a detrimental and widespread effect on conditions at the facility. Any person who is responsible between 60 and 90 hours in a single week for resident care, custody, order and security at [CJTS] is being stretched beyond appropriate limits.”

While that investigation concluded that the nearly 22,000 hours of overtime staff at CJTS worked during the eight months of the year they reviewed was inappropriate, data show CJTS staff last year worked 79,000 hours of overtime.

Since March 2002, a much smaller population is confined at CJTS – 152 youths compared to an average of 104 last fiscal year.

Videos released last month by the child advocate as part of her recent investigation show a number of restrains her office considered unlawful or dangerous.

One of the videos shows a youth referred to as Jennie calmly walking from one end of the facility to another before a male youth services officer comes from behind and tackles her to the ground. She hits her head on the wall on the way down. Four other staff members proceed to restrain her on the ground.

Some staff at the Pueblo Unit were working mandatory overtime when the incident occurred, injury records show. The department does not track when staff are working mandatory overtime unless staff are injured during that shift, according to the DCF spokesman.

Following the incident with Jennie, the male worker seen tackling her for refusing to return to her room was required to work an overtime shift even though he was injured during the incident.

“That YSO was in severe pain, in need of medical treatment. He stayed on for his shift because there wasn’t anyone to cover to relieve him. He wanted to make sure that he stayed on for that shift to make sure that the residents were safe and secure,” said Lewok. “That resident was subsequently secured and that staff was forced for an additional shift following that.”

Concerns about staffing levels have been raised several times over the last two years by the union that represents the youth service officers, AFSCME 4 Local 2663.

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In February 2014, a union representative testified before the legislature’s budget-writing committee that the facility was “greatly understaffed.”

One month later, teachers that work at CJTS said they were concerned about their safety because of a lack of youth services officers stationed at the school.

“Teachers in classrooms need to know staff are outside. When they are not, [it] violates safety plan,” said a grievance filed in March 2014 by the union representing the teachers. “They have to deal with students on their own…Facility has to provide enough staff for safety.”

Staff who work at the facility have mixed feelings about overtime.

“We have staffing ebbs and flows like any place,” said James Corey, a  nine-year youth services officer who made $1,682 in overtime last year. He said he was rarely required to work a double shift.

“Sometimes you sign up for 16-hour shifts cause you prefer to do them,” said Lewoc, a youth services officer of 13 years who earned $2,100 in overtime last year.

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