Corrections overtime pay still rising despite inmate population reaching four-year low

A jail cell in the Metro Department of Corrections. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Although the number of inmates housed at Louisville’s jail recently fell to its lowest level since 2015, the amount of overtime costs paid by the Metro Department of Corrections has continued to increase through the first quarter of this year.

As reported by Insider Louisville last week, overtime payments made by Metro Corrections more than tripled from 2015 to 2018, rising from $1.55 million to $5.06 million. In the most extreme example over that time period, one corrections officer more than quadrupled his take-home pay, making $129,395 in overtime pay alone in 2018 to become the second-highest paid city employee.

Through just over the first quarter of 2019, such overtime payments continued to increase, reaching $1.58 million and accounting for nearly 19% of total payments to jail employees.

In an emailed statement, Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton told Insider that reasons for the increase in overtime pay include the rise in vacant positions that must be filled and prison overcrowding since 2016 that caused the department to open an old jail above the LMPD headquarters.

But according to a WDRB story that aired last week, Corrections data indicate the average daily inmate population at the jail through February of this year has fallen to 1,855 — the lowest since 2015 and far below the counts approaching 2,400 throughout 2017.

While Corrections opened the dilapidated jail above the LMPD headquarters in 2016 to accommodate the prisoners surging past its 1,793 beds, Bolton added that this space was deactivated last summer due to declining need.

While the jails’ population began to spike in April of 2016, Bolton told WDRB that “over the course of the last six months or so, our population has come down to pre-April 2016 levels. It’s almost like we’re back to normal.”

The key factor in this reduction is the Kentucky Department of Corrections moving inmates out of Louisville’s jail and into state prisons at a faster rate, as the number of state inmates the jail holds has dropped in half, to roughly 250.

Corrections spokesman Steve Durham told Insider via email that overtime pay is continuing to increase because the inmate population decline “still leaves us overcrowded” and “is not grand enough to eliminated housing units and shut down operations on floors of the jail.”

Durham also indicated that the department has had additional vacancies this year, with sick time and leave hours increased from this quarter compared to the first three months from 2018. He also pointed to an uptick in hospital admissions of inmates compared to last year’s first quarter — up from 56 to 70 — with as many as nine positions on a single shift required to escort inmates on such trips.

As Bolton indicated to Insider last week, the department has 73 vacant corrections officer positions, nearly double the number from 2017. Because the jail is a 24/7 operation, a minimum number of positions must be filled every shift to comply with safety requirements for staff and inmates.

As for the amount of overtime paid in 2017 and 2018, Bolton had said that it was “largely driven by overcrowding” that forced Metro Corrections to open the jail above the LMPD headquarters, with that space requiring five overtime slots to fill. He added that employees made 1.5 times their hourly rate for overtime hours up to 56, then reaching twice their hourly rate once they passed 56 hours in a week.

Tracy Dotson, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77 that represents Metro Corrections workers, told Insider that the spike in overtime pay was due to an agreement reached with the city two years ago to add a clause giving workers twice their hourly rate once they’ve worked more than 16 hours of overtime in a week.

According to Dotson, Metro Corrections was regularly violating the terms of his members’ collective bargaining contract at the time by forcing employees to work up to 32 hours of overtime per week. After threatening to sue the city over this violation, Dotson said the city agreed to add the double-time provision to the contract.

“I would prefer that they staff these positions, that we don’t spend any overtime, because my people want to go home … at least the majority of them do,” said Dotson, who added that since the city was going to force officers to work long overtime hours regardless, “I figured I might as well get my members more compensation.”

Noting that the jail over the LMPD headquarters has been closed since last June, Dotson said that additional space “has nothing to do” with increased overtime pay in 2018 and 2019, as “our overtime budget is massive because were at over 70 vacancies and our lackluster recruiting efforts.”

Even with that increased pay for overtime duty — and the ability of some to more than double their take-home pay — vacancies have continued to mount in the department, as Dotson said that workers get burned out and quit over being forced to work that many hours, especially with legislation passed six years ago that slashed the pension benefits of new hires.

“The workload just knocks out their will to live and they end up leaving,” said Dotson. “I put up with a lot of crap 20 years ago at $10 an hour because I knew my retirement was going to be there, and it was 20 and out, and now we don’t have that anymore.”

One worker who hasn’t suffered a burnout is George Manley, the corrections employee who made $129,395 in overtime pay last year, which boosted his total pay to $187,922, by volunteering to work 80 hours per week for nearly years, according to Dotson. Manley landed so many hours because of a clause in the contract giving those with seniority the ability to volunteer for such openings first.

(“Other” refers to reimbursement of expenses and programs, state training payments and allowances for items such as clothing and equipment)

Dotson said that Manley, his brother-in-law, was able to work those overtime hours because he was single and had no kids, “basically just sleeping and working” over that time. Dotson added that Manley was “preparing for his retirement” in four years, as pension payments are based on an average of the employee’s highest-paid years.

Dotson said that the city would be able to save money in the long run if it invested properly in recruiting new officers to work at the jail, but instead is paying through the nose in overtime pay and covering vacant positions that need to be filled.

“We’re past the point where just paying somebody overtime is cheaper than hiring a whole new employee and paying benefits,” he said.

Referring to his criticism of Metro Council’s vote last month to reject a tax increase to help fill a $35 million budget shortfall beginning July 1, Dotson reiterated that “every no vote on that council was a cut for government services. And if Corrections was properly staffed, if recruiting wasn’t so lackluster, you wouldn’t have people like George Manley making $180,000 a year.”

Through the first quarter of 2019, Manley has made nearly $15,000 in overtime pay, once again more than any other city worker. Second and third in the quarter are fellow Metro Corrections employees Gerald Hamilton and Samuel Green, who made $10,194 and $9,441.

Of the 16 city workers with the highest overtime payments in 2018, 10 were either Metro Corrections officers or sergeants. Through the first quarter of 2019, seven of the 10 workers with the highest overtime pay in the city were from Metro Corrections, and 13 of the top 21.