Staffing King County's adult and juvenile jails is a 24-hour-a-day job. The officers who do it say they're being required to work so much overtime that safety's at risk. They want more hiring. County administrators say it's not that simple.

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Corrections officers at King County jails worked more than 188,000 hours of overtime last year, continuing a yearslong trend that has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and now, according to union officials, has reached a crisis that threatens the safety of guards and inmates alike.

“If something meaningful isn’t done to relieve this situation soon,” David Richardson, president of the King County Corrections Guild, wrote to county leaders in September, “our workforce is going to start to break.”

For some officers, overtime is voluntary and can add thousands of dollars to their take-home pay. For others, it means long hours ordered by their boss and personal cost, like exhaustion and loss of time with family.

Extensive use of overtime is an open secret inside the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD), where county records show officers and sergeants at the downtown jail, the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent and the juvenile jail in Seattle have worked nearly a million hours of overtime since 2013, at a cost of $52.8 million.

About 15 percent of those overtime hours were mandatory — meaning supervisors, after not finding enough volunteers, require officers to come in early or stay late. Officers working overtime earn time-and-a-half their regular pay. And at the adult jails, officers make twice their regular pay if they work mandatory overtime more than once in a 10-day period. In lieu of overtime pay, workers can take compensatory hours off — “comp time.”

County leaders say they have been able to cover millions of dollars in overtime costs in the department’s existing budget and they’re working to hire more officers to reduce the strain of constant overtime. The county recently began offering hiring incentives of up to $10,000 for corrections officers.

But the county blames the workers, too, saying officers take large amounts of leave, sometimes with little advance notice, forcing them to fill those positions with overtime hours.

In a statement, County Executive Dow Constantine said the county was working to address the problem but also blamed “substantial use and abuse of leave,” plus limits on which officers can work mandatory overtime, and unpredictable schedules.

The county’s contracts with the unions representing corrections officers limit how many officers can be out on vacation at any one time. But the county argues that overtime can pile up as it attempts to fill those spots, along with those of officers on leave or out due to illness or injury.

The King County Corrections Guild represents officers and sergeants who work at adult jails; the King County Juvenile Detention Guild represents officers who work at the juvenile jail. The county is now in arbitration with the King County Corrections Guild. Those officers currently work under a contract that expired at the end of 2016.

The county and guild are in arbitration for the fourth time in 10 years with “chronic impasses,” Constantine said. “The status quo provisions of the Guild’s contract are not solving the problem; they are part of the problem. They do not benefit employees, taxpayers, or the public we serve.”

The unions representing officers, meantime, accuse county officials of having failed to take seriously a problem that has festered for decades.

Jail guards are “trying to push a big boulder up the hill but have only got four or five small people to do it,” Richardson said in an interview. “We just don’t have enough labor to do the amount of work they are making us do.”

Problem unsolved for decades

Richardson’s warning that the jail workforce would “break” may have put the issue in stark new terms, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in King County government.

Since nearly the day the King County Jail opened in 1986, overtime has been a concern, according to media coverage from the time and several King County Auditor studies of the issue over the last two decades.

That spring, overtime costs at the downtown jail threatened to throw the county budget off by as much as $1 million, The Seattle Times reported. A union representative said the jail was understaffed; County Council members suggested schedule changes. Officials placed blame on a higher-than-predicted jail population and on operating two jails as inmates were transported from the old facility to the new one.

By the end of the year, jail staffers had taken a vote of “no confidence” in the county executive and County Council. Saying conditions were becoming more dangerous, employees planned a work slowdown. In the mid-’90s, the issue persisted. As some guards earned enough overtime to double their regular pay, authorities blamed jail overcrowding.

In 2009, an arbitrator considering disputes between the county and the corrections-officers guild called the county’s use of mandatory overtime “inhumane” and “cruel.”

“What public observer in a King County courtroom would fail to be outraged to find that the armed Corrections Officer responsible for the security of a potentially violent prisoner was functioning on four or five hours’ sleep in the last 28 hours?” wrote arbitrator Howell Lankford.

By 2013, the county spent about $6.6 million on overtime at adult and juvenile jails, according to data obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-disclosure request. In the five years since, overtime costs have continued to pile up, ranging from about $7.5 million to $10.4 million a year. In 2018, the county spent about $10.2 million on overtime. (The data provided to The Seattle Times by King County was through Dec. 28, 2018.)

Most King County corrections officers work shifts about eight hours long, guarding inmates and supervising them at court appearances or the hospital. Officers also handle booking, release and other tasks.

For some officers, overtime is a significant source of cash. Many officers work more than a hundred hours of overtime a year, with a handful topping 1,000 hours in a single year, according to the county data. Starting pay is about $27 an hour for officers at the juvenile jail, $28 for officers at the adult jails and $39 for sergeants at the adult jails.

For the employees working the most overtime, it can translate to tens of thousands of dollars more a year. In 2018, corrections officer Bryce Lether worked about 1,350 hours of overtime in 2018, adding about $64,000 (plus some comp time) to his $72,800 salary, according to the county.

Lether, who has worked for the county since 2013, said he likes working overtime for the money and because he’s “always at a high level of energy.” He tries to pick up three or four shifts a week, he said, but believes mandatory overtime is a problem.

“These are the people that are going to have my back in a time of crisis,” Lether said of his co-workers. “I want to know they’re going to be there at full function to have my back.”

For some, involuntary overtime can take a psychological toll. The portion of overtime that is mandatory has increased from about 5 percent in 2013 to about 23 percent in 2017 and 20 percent in 2018. Overtime at the juvenile jail spiked in 2018, with officers working 38,000 hours of overtime and about 11 percent of those hours mandatory, up from about 6 percent the year before.

On an “employee idea board” at the downtown jail, someone recently scrawled, apparently sarcastically, “Increase mandatory overtime until morale improves,” according to a photo provided to The Seattle Times.

Double shifts trigger family worries, safety fears

Corrections officer Lucy Kemp laid out just what “being mandatoried” looks like.

Kemp, a 23-year veteran of the department, reports to work shortly before 10:30 p.m. and usually gets off at 6:30 a.m. When she’s required to work overtime, sometimes multiple times in a week, she may stay until 2:30 p.m. before navigating afternoon traffic and getting home just in time to make sure her grandchildren and 14-year-old daughter have something to eat after school. Soon, it’s time to head back to work that night.

When her grandson had a school assembly for Veterans Day, there was an empty chair with her name on it. Her daughter, whom she’s raising alone, gets frustrated, too. “[She wonders] how come you’re not here?” Kemp said in an interview. “How come you’re so tired? How come we can’t have dinner together?”

Kemp’s experience illustrates the rise in mandatory overtime, even for officers who’ve been at the department for decades. In 2013, she worked just four hours of mandatory overtime. By 2017, she worked nearly 174 hours. Last year, she worked about 75 hours of mandatory overtime.

Kemp handles inmate releases and worries the exhaustion of overtime could lead to mistakes. “If I released somebody by mistake, I don’t know that I could live with myself,” she said.

Another officer, Linda Holloway, told state lawmakers last year that mandatory overtime is a safety threat. Lawmakers were considering a bill to ban mandatory overtime for corrections officers except in certain emergencies, a law already in place for most nurses in Washington. The corrections-officer bill was later diluted to a requirement that the state collect data about mandatory overtime, but it stalled in the state Senate. A similar bill to ban most mandatory overtime has been introduced this year.

Holloway, who’s worked for the county for more than 30 years, said long shifts with added commute times can leave officers exhausted.

“You don’t want people out there driving cars [while extremely tired] but apparently all of our employers don’t have a problem with us coming to work basically being drunk,” Holloway told a state House committee, “some of us carrying guns, some of us escorting inmates out to courts [or] out to hospitals with a weapon and we’re supposed to be safe. It’s not safe.”

Officials from King County and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs testified against the bill, saying barring mandatory overtime could leave jails dangerously understaffed.

What’s behind the overtime

County officials say the drivers of overtime are multifaceted. Among them: high use of leave by corrections officers, who on average take about 500 hours of vacation, sick time and other leave per year, said Brenda Bauer, interim director of the DAJD. That figure includes “comp time” taken after working overtime. In contract negotiations, the county is attempting to cut down on how much comp time officers can accrue before using it.

The county also blames the fact that about 16 percent of officers have doctor-approved restrictions on how much overtime they can work, worsening the strain on other officers. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers to avoid working overtime for medical reasons.

Some work, like guarding inmates at the hospital, can also cause unpredictable overtime, according to the county. County officials also cite vacancies within the department. At the end of 2018, there were 48 vacancies for corrections officers at the adult jails, of a total of about 530 officer positions, Bauer said. In January, the county hired 19 new officers for adult jails and reinstated one.

The juvenile jail has unique issues that the county and union agree are driving overtime, including a recent policy change to hold juveniles charged as adults in the juvenile facility instead of adult jails. The county also added positions at the juvenile jail to comply with federal staffing requirements under the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Bauer said the county recently added 13 new juvenile detention officer positions, which have a different testing process than positions for the adult jails. Of 93 positions, there are currently about a dozen vacancies for officers at the juvenile facility, though some applicants are close to being hired, the county said.

Jason Smith, president of King County Juvenile Detention Guild, said the juvenile facility needs to fill its vacancies and add about five new positions to reduce the county’s reliance on overtime. Excessive overtime affects both the officers and the inmates, Smith said. “I think their engagement level with the youth has suffered.”

Law-enforcement agencies across the country have also grappled with overtime use among jail guards. In Harris County, Texas, overtime pay for jail staff rose 500 percent in two years, according to a 2016 report in the Houston Chronicle. In Michigan last year, corrections officers complained that forced overtime posed a threat to officer safety, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“Everyone is struggling with hiring in law enforcement in very significant way,” Bauer said.

Bauer argues overtime costs are necessary to staff a 24-hour facility. Although paying overtime is in most cases slightly less expensive than paying newly hired full-time employees, “that is certainly not our motivation,” Bauer said. “We would rather have all of our vacant positions filled.”

To union leadership, workers are being scolded by their bosses for taking leave allowed by those same bosses. Instead of complaining about the amount of leave workers are taking, Richardson argues, the county should hire more workers. In addition to existing positions, Richardson estimates the county needs about 270 more officers to adequately staff its adult jails. Bauer said county staffing models have determined current numbers are sufficient, though the number fluctuates with factors like inmate population.

DAJD has admitted to having a long hiring process for bringing on new officers and claims to have cut the length of that process in half for officers at the adult jails. But finding new hires in the first place has been a challenge, officials say. In a 2018 presentation to the County Council, department officials described competing for new hires against other local law-enforcement agencies and even Amazon.

“And it’s a hard job,” DAJD program manager Jennifer Albright told the council. “You have to really want to do it.”

To Richardson, president of the guild representing officers at the adult jails, mandatory overtime only worsens the county’s chance of attracting new hires.

“We’re trying to get younger people in this profession,” Richardson said. “They’ve got families, young children … They may have to work nights and weekends. They want to go home to their family. They don’t want to be told, ‘We don’t care that your kid has a birthday. You have to work overtime.’”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which includes material from Seattle Times archives.