Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman passed around information during Monday’s Grant County Law Enforcement Committee meeting detailing a 1995 incident in which two jailers were badly injured during an escape attempt at the county jail.
The point of sharing that was to remind the committee that being a jailer can be a dangerous job. While in the process of hiring two new jailers for the new county jail, Dreckman presented the committee with the idea to return ‘protected status’ to those jailers, allowing them to qualify for retirement earlier, as well as assistance programs if they are injured on the job.
What is protected status, and why do they not have it?
Act 10 severely limited public employee unions ability to bargain, limiting pay raises to the rate of inflation, while requiring annual votes of the members of those unions to get 51 percent approval to continue. Because of the limitations placed on bargaining, and the thresholds to continue, most public employee unions disbanded within two years of its passage.
Seeing the public rejection of similar measures in other states, like Ohio, where taking away benefits from police and firefighters led to the overturning of the legislation, Walker’s idea had an exemption for public safety workers, or those considered ‘protected status’ because their jobs put them in harm’s way. That status gave those positions the following:
• The ability to be in a public union without the annual vote
• Being able to bargain for wages and benefits without the limitations Act 10 places
• Being able to be fully vested in the state retirement system by age 54
• Qualifying for state Duty Disability program, which has higher payouts than workman’s compensation
Grant County had not given protected status to jailers before Act 10, but the jailers had been part of the same union as patrol deputies, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, and were part of the salary agreements that had been negotiated. That ended with Act 10.
After elimination of the status by most counties who had it, Dreckman
noted that counties have been restoring the status, and all of the counties surrounding Grant County have it for jailers.
According to Dreckman, not having it will make Grant County a revolving door, meaning there will be costs to train, and after a few years of experience, the county will see a higher turnover of employees, as they apply for jobs which have the status.
Committee member Pat Schroeder wondered where a potential jailer would rather work, an older jail or the new one the county built, with a design that improves safety and security. He also wondered what the public would think, spending close to $25 million on the new Community Services Building, of which the jail is a predominant part, which is supposed to be more efficient, and now there are additional costs, not just for more jail staff but the added retirement costs.
“I don’t see where it saved us a penny,” Schroeder stated.
“People are not lining up for this job,” stated Jailer Dominic Pagliaro, who left the state prison system for Grant County because of the dangers of the job, and the lack of quality staff filling the positions. He said currently, “we have few incidents in the jail because we have quality staff.”
Of the 14 staff currently on the payroll, only four were hired before 2017, and four were hired this year, with two more positions in the hiring process. That is partly due to an increase in staffing for the new jail, and a turnover of three people who left in the past year.
“We have quality people, but we want to keep them,” Jailer Karen Walls told the committee.
One of the reasons they want to retain staff is to allow the county to rent out empty beds in the new facility. Dreckman told the committee he expects that once they move into the new facility after training and setup, they will be looking to take in an additional 20-25 inmates in 2020, which would lead to increased revenue of approximately $400,000, more than covering the $40,345 estimated cost of the status change.
Schroeder asked about turnover versus early retirement, wondering if they were not similar in the end, to which the jailers responded that those jailers stay until they are 54, as opposed to leaving within 3-5 years, giving a much larger service to the county that trained them.
The jailers countered that by having them retire early, it would mean that there is not a 60-year-old jailer on the job. A younger jailer commented that he is worried that older jailers are limited in their ability to assist a fellow jailer in trouble.
The committee ultimately decided to send the item to the Executive Committee for more discussion next month. The vote was 3-2, with Committee Chair Gary Ranum clearing a tie with Greg Fry and John Beinborn voting against, and Schroeder and Robert Keeney voting in favor.
Unlike Grant County, which has dedicated jailers and dispatchers, Lafayette has the positions combined, rotating employees between dispatch and the jail, and list them as deputies, swearing them in as deputies to have arrest powers within the jail.
“They are the critical link,” Lafayette Sheriff Reg Gill said of the position. Gill remembers the fight his predecessor, Scott Pedley, had in retaining the status for the workers, going before the county board in 2012, with Wisconsin Counties Association Counsel Andy Phillips, working in a private capacity, stating the board had every right to remove the status.
“It is unconscionable to me that county jailers do not have duty disability protection,” said Sheriff Pedley in a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report.
Phillips had advised county officials around the state to revoke jail employees’ protective status at the time, to save money and conform to the letter of the law, stating that those positions do not have 51 percent of their time consisting of active law enforcement.
“Fortunately for us, the county board decided not to make a change,” Gill stated.
Gill noted that for law enforcement positions, it’s tough recruiting these days, and for those having protective status there is a better chance for recruitment and retention as they compete against other careers.
Over time, only 12 counties out of 72 eliminated the status, some waiting years to do so - Douglas County eliminated protected status for jailers in 2017. However, there’s a trend in the past few years where counties have begun to return protected status to jailers.
Legislation being debated
A bill had been introduced last legislative session to allow jailers to be considered as protected status, but would force the employee to pay any additional costs for that classification. One of the co-writers of that bill was State Sen. Howard Marklein.
Brought up again in the State Senate as Senate Bill 5 (similarly named in the State Assembly) the proposed bill would allow new hires decide if they wished to be part of the disability duty program, as well as early retirement, paying the additional costs if they had not been granted protected status by the county board.
For those who have protected status, the county board can decide to remove jailers from the ability to be in the same bargaining group as public safety employees, effectively giving them the same limitations as they currently have under Act 10.
In other business, the committee heard about a proposal to raise the new jail corporal positions to full management status, giving them a pay raise over the jailers they oversee. As part of the realignment of the jail staff in prelude to the move to the new jail, two corporal positions were created to oversee the non-daytime staff at the jail. The item, which was going to be at the Executive Committee the next day, called for the two posts to be considered management, which meant they would receive 5 percent pay increase over the individuals they oversee.
During the daytime hours, the jail would be overseen by the captain who has oversight of the jail, which itself had been uprated from the sergeant post it has been.
The committee also heard from the Coroner that UW-Madison was doubling its price for autopsies, from $1,500 to $3,000, with the hourly cost for criminal autopsies to be $500 an hour.