Result of furloughs – $1 billion liability Prison guards, supervisors rack up millions of hours in paid time off

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Corrections Officer Mark Green shackles a San Quentin inmate at the holding cell for the prison’s clinic. Guarding the state’s 33 prisons is a 24/7 job, making it unsafe for prison staff to take the mandatory furloughs, a corrections spokesman says

Photo: Michael Macor / The Chronicle




California prison guards and their supervisors have racked up 33.2 million hours of vacation, sick and other paid time off – an astounding accumulation that amounts to nearly half a year per worker.

It also adds up to a $1 billion liability for taxpayers of the deficit-plagued state.

Poor management at California’s prisons has for years allowed workers to stock up on generous amounts of paid time off – a benefit that employees must either use or cash out when they retire. But the numbers swelled when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed furloughs in 2009, forcing prison guards and their supervisors to take unpaid days off each month to help save state cash.

Furloughs are problematic at California’s 33 state prisons, all of which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have thousands of unfilled prison guard positions. Workers have been coming in on their furlough days and banking paid time off.

“You can’t shut prisons down,” Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said. “You have to keep them operational. You have to cover every post. You don’t want to endanger staff by not doing that.”

Overtime a given

For prison guards, overtime is practically a given. According to JeVaughn Baker, a spokesman for the prison guard union, there are about 3,000 vacancies for corrections guards alone; Hidalgo said the number is around 2,000. Prison guards, like most public safety employees, do not work a normal 40-hour week; instead, they work 164 hours in a 28-day cycle. Any time over that amount is overtime.

Although Schwarzenegger’s three-day-a-month furlough policy ended last year for most state employees, it is still in place for prison guards as they continue to negotiate a contract with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

“This was a unilateral action by the (former) governor, and it turned out to be a very misguided policy,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “It was done across the board, without distinguishing or differentiating between workplaces.”

Brown’s office referred questions about the issue to Hidalgo, who acknowledged that furloughs have increased the amount of time on the books.

“The reality is, it became a very difficult policy to implement and manage over a long period of time,” he said. “It’s been a challenge since day one.”

Schwarzenegger ordered most state workers onto two-day-a-month furloughs in February 2009, as the state faced a $42 billion deficit. The order, which impacted about 200,000 employees, was later extended to three days a month. Schwarzenegger exempted some 24/7 workers, including California Highway Patrol officers and firefighters, but not prison workers.

Despite the furloughs and other cost-cutting measures, California now faces a $26.6 billion budget deficit in its general fund.

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