On Monday, I reported that Northampton County jail has a manpower crisis after a meeting last week with a part the union negotiating team. My conclusion is that the County needs to pay more money to attract and retain officers. This conclusion is disputed by the county, which has submitted a response. Because there are two and sometimes three or four sides to every story, I am happy to post the county response, in its entirety.
Recently, correctional officers and people advocating for correctional officers have lamented what they perceive to be inequitable compensation at the Northampton County Jail. The reality is that these perceptions are simply not borne out by the facts. Let’s start by talking about salaries.
The Data Shows That The Retroactive Salary Adjustments Awarded in the Arbitration Process Chosen By The Union Are Competitive With Neighboring Counties.
In 2017 as of the expiration of the most recent labor contract, the average base salary for COs in Northampton County was $54,984. This excludes any overtime and bases average salary on where the County had the most Cos—at seven years of service.
The COs and the County sought to negotiate a new contract following the expiration of the most recent labor contract. As was their right, the COs sought binding arbitration in front of a neutral third party arbitrator. While that occurred, the Parties remained in status quo, and the COs did not receive annual increases, for 2018 and half of 2019.
Going into the arbitration and looking at surrounding counties, Northampton’s 2017
average salary was already higher
than the average 2019
salary for Lehigh County, Carbon County and Monroe County and was only $400 less than Bucks County and $2,500 less than Berks County. This, again, is based not on starting salaries but an apples to apples comparison of average CO
Here’s why the average salary of Northampton’s COs at seven years was comparable in 2017. The facts demonstrate that the County had historically invested in CO salaries. For the period of 2008 to 2017, COs received wage increases totaling 43% - which is 30% over CPI f
or that same period and averages 4.3% per year.
At arbitration the Union’s
proposal sought to address a salary inequity which did not really exist. The Union proposed to increase wages 28% in year one only
, plus $0.90 per year increases for each subsequent year, roughly 10% total for the remainder of the contract. Nearly a 40% increase over the term. The County could not afford this.
After hours of testimony and discussion, the neutral third party arbitrator provided retroactive wage increases of $0.75/hour in both 2018 and 2019, which based upon a 2080 hour work year, amounted to a total increase of $3,120 per officer. This is the same neutral third party arbitrator who decided the arbitration award resulting in the salaries contained in the 2013-2017 labor contract so he was hardly unfair to the COs either now or in the past.
So, now, using the adjusted 2019 numbers, Northampton County’s average salary is now well above every neighboring County
– at the high end, $620/year above Berks County, at the low end, nearly $20,000/year above Carbon County. And, Lehigh County, the marker most often used by the Union, is now $4,100 below Northampton County.
The bottom line is this—data confirms that salaries are comparable and fair. If the data showed otherwise, the neutral third party arbitrator selected in part by the Union would have awarded different salaries.
Overtime Is the Result of a Schedule Which the Union Does Not Want To Change
Let’s now turn to overtime which is another subject that we’ve heard about. The Union claims that overtime is rampant leading to overworked employees.
Here’s why this happens. Data shows that the average CO at the prison works 1611 hours out of a 2080 hour work year. This means that the average CO is not available for 25% of the year, causing holes in the schedule.
In addition, the contract provides that COs — who are expected to work shift work in a 24/7, 365 day a year facility — are entitled to have every other weekend off. In order to meet that mandate, the County must use overtime to cover shifts where COs are required to be off.
In 2018, the total cost of overtime was $1.73 million; nearly $1 million of that cost is directly attributable to the fact the every other weekend off language.
At arbitration, the County sought to eliminate this language from the contract in order to make the schedule more equitable. The County was open to any solutions which the parties could make work. The Union strenuously
objected to the removal of this language and, as a result, the schedule remained unaddressed.
The question is why? Who benefits from a schedule that costs more money and makes union members unhappy and unsatisfied? It’s not the County which made proposals to change the schedule and make it more fair. The bottom line is this: if the COs do not like the amount of overtime but also don’t work a 2080 hour/40 hour a week year, then they have to either work the overtime or choose to be partners in reforming the schedule to make it equitable.
The County Is Doing Everything It Can to Recruit and Retain COs
The primary claim that some make is that COs are leaving and, therefore, the Jail cannot be staffed. This is just an excuse and it is not backed up by the facts.
The County employs roughly 198 COs. Typically, the Prison sees about 25% annual turnover.
Of that turnover rate, about 40% is due to employee retirements, death or terminations (in other words, employees who are not doing their job to keep inmates and each other safe). If an employee either passes away or retires, then the best that the County can do is try to replace that officer as quickly as possible. That is why the current Administration has run training academies to attract, train and replace COs multiple times during the last two years.
For those COs who are terminated for poor performance, the County has no choice but to maintain the standard of professionalism which the rest of the COs observe. It is neither fair nor right to keep a CO at his position simply to provide overtime relief if he or she is not safe.
What is significant is that the data shows that less than 2%
of turnover is attributable to an employee leaving to be a CO in another county, the reason for which is obvious when looking at Northampton’s wages as compared to surrounding Counties. That means that there is not a better paying job or better schedule for which Northampton COs are leaving. This would seem to validate that the County is paying a competitive wage and providing more than competitive benefits.
Here’s what people don’t tell you. 25% of the departures were due to the employee moving to a different line of work – including law enforcement. That CO positions are often a stepping stone to law enforcement is a well-known fact – not just in Northampton County, but statewide.
The fact of the matter is that the County’s turnover rate at the jail is not unusual for the size of the unit and the type of work performed.
The Future of the Jail
Work in corrections is a calling. It is a difficult job dealing with individuals in crisis. The County’s professional correctional officers work hard to provide a safe and secure facility. But like all workplaces, there is a need for constant vigilance and, where possible improvement. That takes both sides to come together.
We have just come through thoroughly litigated process where professionals used data to make the best determination possible regarding the compensation package for the correctional officers. Where parties don’t reach a deal on their own, there can be some hard feelings as a deal is made for you rather than you having the opportunity to make your own compromise.
The facts demonstrate that the arbitration panel placed the COs in a competitive position with regard to salaries and total compensation. The facts demonstrate that there is no basis to suggest that more money would result directly in more COs coming to or staying at the Jail. Retention just cannot be reduced to a simplistic formula.
But things could be better. The facts demonstrate that the schedule that the COs work needs to be reformed to be fairer to all the COs and not just the most senior COs. If that adds to the quality of life for the COs and is fair to both the County and its taxpayers, the County is willing to look at any proposal which can safely staff the Jail at an equal or reduced cost to the taxpayers. The question is this: are people more invested in complaining about a problem that data demonstrates does not exist or are they motivated to work cooperatively to improve their conditions of work?