Corrections officers’ back pay tab now pushing $125 million while officers say conditions worsening

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ST. LOUIS – A Missouri appeals court agrees the state must pay a groundbreaking judgment for shorting state corrections officers’ pay. The officers say the state’s holdout is affecting morale and contributing to more dangerous prison conditions.

Six fentanyl exposures have been reported at one prison since Friday, according to the Missouri Corrections Officers Association. The association said the exposures reportedly impacted both inmates and officers.

Missouri Department of Corrections spokesperson Karen Pojmann acknowledged the reports but said a hospital confirmed only one of the cases to be fentanyl. The spokesperson said an officer went to the hospital and was doing fine.

“This week, staff were understandably concerned about fentanyl exposure and were hyper-vigilant in looking out for possible exposure risks and signs of exposure, and some staff reported similar symptoms,” Pojmann said. “One had an undiagnosed medical condition and experienced symptoms such as lightheadedness, but it was confirmed that this staff member had not been exposed.”

The corrections union said its members are also suffering from record staffing shortages. A union rep said it’s so bad, “…the state has stopped putting numbers out.”

The representative added “…staffing levels are a lot worse than they were a year ago,” when he said, “The Department of Corrections was 900 officers short, November 2018.”

Pojmann also disputed those allegations, saying the department is currently 800 officers short.

“As you know, corrections staffing is a national problem, and we’re fortunate to have higher staffing levels than many other states,” she said. “We hope that the new pay raise that goes into effect January 1 will help us to recruit and retain great employees.”

The union claims staffing is down and morale is suffering partly because of the state’s holdout on paying its court judgment.

Corrections officers have proven to judge after judge that the state is breaking its own labor laws. Yet the department of corrections still won’t pay officers when they arrive at work, despite repeated orders to do so.

Officers are instead expected to volunteer the time it takes to get through the prison, get their equipment and gather safety intelligence before their time clock begins. On average, that’s about two hours and 30 minutes of unpaid time per employee each week.

More than a dozen judges have agreed, without dissent. Taxpayers need to pay up. The state may take it to the Supreme Court but nothing stops the climbing interest. For some context – a year ago, the jury verdict was for $113 million. Legislators have gambled $12 million since then, hoping one judge might toss out the whole case.

Fox 2 will follow up with whatever happens.

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