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home : local news : local news May 25, 2016

12/20/2012 12:53:00 PM
Prison officers 'not the enemy' in state pension battle
Daily News

Local correctional officers want Gov. Pat Quinn to stop "villainizing" them and other state workers, and take responsibility for the state's financial crisis.

"One of the urgent messages that I need to get out to the community for our members is that we are not the enemy," said Bryon Steadman, vice-president of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) Local 3649. "Gov. Quinn has free reign of the press, and at any moment he can villainize us instead of taking responsibility for the financial crisis the state is in. We watch the state mismanage money on a daily basis, yet Quinn is trying to blame state workers that have sacrificed themselves beyond monetary compensation to take heat off of his administration."

"When I first started I was told that Illinois correctional officers were compensated well for putting their life in jeopardy and being put in situations where they may have to save lives as well," Steadman said. "The part I learned shortly after was that Illinois had one of the worst retirements in the nation."

Steadman said about 10 years ago the union fought hard to get a fair retirement, knowing it would cost privileges and some compensation. Since that time, he contends that politicians have been attacking state workers with threats of privatizing, closures, pay cuts and making them pay extreme amounts toward medical benefits and retirement.

"The governor has referred to state workers as being overpaid and our retirement being extravagant," Steadman said. "I don't know of any co-workers that live extravagantly. If anything many of them live the same life as I do, from check to check.

"The state currently takes approximately $500 a month of my earnings to go toward my retirement (more if I work overtime), and after I have completed 30 years, which is the least amount of years I personally have to work before I can collect a dime," he said. "I will still be living a modest lifestyle."

With a starting pay of $35,088 plus benefits in a sluggish economy, some would say correctional officers have nothing to complain about, but Steadman points out it is not like working in the private sector. "This is a thankless job," he said. "It takes a bit of your sanity away,"

Statistics show that correctional officers have the second-highest mortality rate of any occupation; 33.5 percent of all assaults in prisons and jails are committed by inmates against staff. An officer is likely to be seriously assaulted at least twice in a 20-year career. A correctional officer's 58th birthday, on average, is his last, and on average he will live only 18 months after retirement. Correctional officers have a 39 percent higher suicide rate than any other occupation, and have a higher divorce and substance abuse rates than the general population.

Steadman said they also have to live to higher standards, like those of any law enforcement officer. A domestic dispute, DUI, or minor drug offense are grounds for termination. Even those who do not break the law can still be terminated for "conduct unbecoming of an officer."

Steadman said officers can also be disciplined for minor violations, like bringing a cell phone into the facility. He knows of one officer who was disciplined when he accidentally brought a screwdriver to work he had left in his pocket after making a home repair. Another officer was terminated because his wife had unknowingly rented an apartment the couple owned to someone on parole.

With the governor going ahead with plans to close two prisons in Illinois, other prisons, like Robinson, will have to house more prisoners.

When the Robinson facility first opened, it was designed to house around 600 inmates with less than five years to go on a sentence. Now there are more than 1,200 inmates with 10- to 12-year sentences. Steadman said the state is evaluating how more inmates can be housed in the gymnasium or cellblock day rooms.

More prisoners means more hazards, especially with prisons being understaffed. Overtime is one of the points of contention Steadman said correctional officers want to make people aware of.

"We currently have non-security positions that are vacant. At least two of these positions have been temporarily filled by security staff for approximately one year," Steadman said. "Security staff are paid approximately $20,000 more a year than the positions at hand. These two positions being filled by security officers, then leaves security short staffed, which will result in overtime for security staff. If nobody volunteers to work the overtime there will be staff chosen to be forced to work the overtime."

AFSCME Local 3649 President James Hedge said he has worked more than 800 hours of overtime during the last three years. Other correctional officers have averaged as much as 300 hours of overtime each year.

According to Steadman and other union members, it is overtime pay and pensions, that the governor is using to "villianize" correctional officers, and that is what they want the public to understand.

"Even after the state agreed to terms in giving us a raise some years ago, the state later claimed that they were broke," Steadman said. "We made a deal to defer our raises to help with the financial burden of the state. When it was time to pay those raises the governor refused to pay them." The case has since gone to court and a judge ruled they should be paid.

Retirement and pension contributions are also points of contention. Most correctional officers pay around $500 a month from their salaries into the pension plan. More is deducted from overtime pay. According to Hedge, retirement pay is based on an officer's regular salary. The overtime contributions do not come back to the officer. Correctional officers with military service can also buy more pension time, up to four years.

Under the current rules, an officer can retire after 25 years at age 50, and after 20 years if they are over age 50. Under recent pension reform talks, employees may have to wait until age 67 to retire.

Steadman said the age factor is something that has officers concerned. He said they already have to worry about biological hazards like HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis, but they wonder how a correctional officer in his 60s is supposed to break up a fight between 20-something gang members.

"For the first time in over 40 years we are working without a contract due to the governor terminating ours last month," said Steadman. "Most of our employees do not want a strike, however most of our employees are willing to support a strike if we are forced into a strike due to the unfair methods imposed by our current governor."

Steadman said that all they really want is to do their jobs in as safe of an environment as they can and receive the compensation they were promised.

"We are good people," he said.

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Article comment by: Jesse McClanahan

It is just about time a union person finally stepped up and said something. I just can't believe the citizens of Il. believe all the lies that are being told to them buy the Governor. Can P. Quinn even tell the truth? There needs to be more facts and truths being told by the union by newspaper and televised, They should have started striking last July when the government didn't want to come to the table and negotiate a contract. Keep up the good work local 3649 at least you all got a backbone.

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