Crime and Justice

Corrections commissioner calls for longer shifts and 60-hour work weeks; union leader slams plan

Razor wire lines the perimeter fences at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town on Feb. 4. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 5:55 p.m.

The leader of the Vermont Department of Corrections plans to move frontline staff at the state’s six prisons to longer scheduled shifts and 60-hour work weeks later this summer to address staffing shortages and safety issues.

Nicholas Deml, the corrections commissioner, said correctional officers currently work five eight-hour shifts a week, frequently with additional required overtime due to lack of staff. His plan calls for a move to five 12-hour shifts a week, starting late next month. 

“The sad reality is we don’t have enough staff in the system to not have people working overtime,” he said. “We want to break that cycle, but in order to do that we need to create some stability, to enable our recruitment and retention efforts to really take roots.”

The news Wednesday morning drew a swift response from Steve Howard, the head of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing correctional officers.

“I haven’t seen his plan, he didn’t give us the courtesy of sharing with us in advance so it’s a little hard to comment on it,” Howard said early Wednesday afternoon.

Howard predicted the move to 12-hour shifts would cause more workers to leave, rather than encourage newcomers to sign up and join the department. 

As of Wednesday, according to the corrections department, 165 of 553 security staff positions were unfilled, resulting in a 29% vacancy rate.

“It’s particularly troublesome,” Howard added, “when VSEA has repeatedly asked this administration to assign managers from central office with facility experience to pick up overtime shifts in the facilities and they have refused to do that.”

Howard took aim at Deml’s career background and lack of experience in the corrections field, referring to him as “Washington D.C., insider” who was engaging in “DC spin” rather than addressing the need for higher pay and improved working conditions.

Deml, a seven-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who formerly worked on Capitol Hill, became Vermont’s corrections commissioner about eight months ago, replacing James Baker, who stepped down. 

“You can move the chairs around the Titanic as much as you want and you can put out glossy press releases and act like this is Washington D.C. but none of that is going to solve the problem,” Howard said. “This commissioner has failed miserably to address this absolutely exploding crisis.” 

In Washington, Deml also worked in the U.S. Senate as a national security and foreign policy aide to the office of the assistant majority leaders and as an aide on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. 

Deml said Howard’s comments about his work experience were unfortunate.

“I’m always disappointed when Mr. Howard makes these personal character attacks,” Deml said Wednesday. “I hope he can move past those things and we can get down to the really substantive work on these topics.”  

Deml described the changes across the entire prison system as “temporary,” though in implementing such schedule changes earlier this year at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury and last week at the Springfield prison, they were described as “emergency” measures.

Under its collective bargaining agreement, Deml said, the department can make the systemwide schedule change provided time is allowed, as proposed, for “impact bargaining” with the Vermont State Employees Association.  

“That’s within the collective bargaining agreement, something that we can do,” Deml said.  

He said the department planned to negotiate with the union about potential “pay enhancements” because management is “asking a lot of folks,” noting “that’s something we’re absolutely open to.”

The starting pay for an entry-level corrections officer is $20.96 an hour, he said.

Deml shared the proposal as he publicly announced initiatives Wednesday morning aimed at boosting retention and recruitment of staff. That includes a plan to eventually move to seven 12-hour shifts — a total of 84 hours — over 14 days, with a three-day weekend per pay period, according to the commissioner.

Each 14-day period would include 76 hours at regular time and eight hours of “built-in overtime,” he said. With two shifts a day, Deml said, “we can create more flexibility so that the system can adjust when people call out or there is a shortage for some reason but it also provides for (staff) just more time away from the facility.”

Deml said the goal is to foster a better work-life balance for staff by providing a more dependable and predictable schedule. As it stands, staff might learn last-minute that they need to stay longer to cover shifts, he said.

As part of his efforts to retain and recruit workers, Deml also plans to conduct a market study on the pay of correctional workers, increasing professional development opportunities for staff, and promoting and supporting staff wellness initiatives.

But, before getting to those other longer-range initiatives, he said the system first needed to move to the five 12-hour shift schedule in late August to stabilize the corrections department’s staffing.

Deml’s plan comes one week after Howard blasted as “cruel and inhumane” the move by the department to institute the “emergency” staffing change at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

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