Missouri high court weighs $114M payout to prison guards

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A lawyer for the state of Missouri argued to state Supreme Court judges on Wednesday that the state shouldn’t have to pay nearly $114 million to prison guards for alleged overtime work.

Judges heard arguments in the case virtually because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

At issue is $113.7 million a jury awarded to corrections officers in 2018 for work they perform before and after their shifts, such as going through security screenings.

An attorney for the guards told Supreme Court judges that the Department of Corrections requires officers to perform entrance and exit procedures before and after their shifts, which can take up to 30 minutes a day. Lawyer Gary Burger said during those times guards are in uniform and on call in case of emergencies.

“If they require these officers to be supervising and guarding, they’re on duty,” Burger said.

Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer told judges those procedures are not part of officers’ principal work, so that time doesn’t count for pay.

He said other courts have ruled that just because guards must be alert and prepared to respond to emergencies when they’re on prison grounds doesn’t mean they deserve to be compensated for time when they’re not doing their primary jobs.

Sauer also argued that federal labor laws don’t give the guards a private cause of action, or a right to sue, against the Department of Corrections as a state agency.

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