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HARRISBURG â€” The high overtime costs at the state Corrections Department were in the limelight last week due to a combination of events.
The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee released a long-awaited report on the link between staff shortages and overtime costs at the agency while top corrections officials appeared at budget hearings before the Senate and House Appropriations Committees. Sens. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, and Mario Scavello, R-40, Mount Pocono, both raised the overtime cost issue.
This all happened within weeks of the Wolf administrationâ€™s decision to close SCI-Pittsburgh as part of a cost-saving move while sparing three prisons in Northeast Pennsylvania â€” SCI-Waymart, SCI-Retreat and SCI-Frackville â€” from the same fate. The transfer of correctional officers from SCI-Pittsburgh will ease overtime demands at other prisons, corrections officials said.
For years, the corrections department has led state agencies in overtime costs for its employees. The departmentâ€™s overtime costs â€” mainly for correctional officers â€” doubled from $49 million in 2010 to $100 million in 2015, according to a Sunday Times analysis.
Corrections overtime costs are declining from a 2015 peak with a projected cost of $90 million in fiscal 2017-18, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told senators.
The department has reduced mandatory overtime â€” a major bone of contention with the correctional officers union â€” by 50 percent during the past two years, said Christopher Oppman, a deputy corrections secretary.
The legislative committee was charged with looking at why overtime costs went up while the inmate population steadily declined during this decade. The declining population is the main reason why prisons are being closed.
One reason was a freeze on hiring of new correctional officers in fiscal 2014-15 that led to more overtime hours for the remaining correctional officers. It led to hundreds of vacancies when correctional officers who retired or quit werenâ€™t replaced.
The hiring freeze resulted in an additional 358,000 overtime hours that cost the agency $4.6 million in fiscal 2014-15 and $9.1 million in fiscal 2015-16.
Paying the overtime proved more costly than filling vacancies, the committee concluded. The agency would have saved $16.2 million in net wages in fiscal 2015-16 if fully staffed.
Another reason for overtime is increasing demand for inmate medical and mental health services. The percentage of inmates over age 55 is increasing and that means correctional officers putting in more overtime to escort them to hospitals. An agreement with the federal Department of Justice to settle a lawsuit regarding mental health needs resulted in more screening of inmates for mental health issues and requirements that they spend more time outside their cells. This necessitated more overtime for security purposes.
The committee recommended that corrections avoid any more hiring freezes involving correctional officers, include medical escorts when calculating staffing needs and require monthly reports to justify use of overtime.
Argall obtained assurances from corrections officials that they are implementing those recommendations.
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