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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 17, 2006

Prisons faulted for $7M in OT, sick leave abuse

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

The state prison system continues to spend more than $7 million a year on employees' overtime, and has failed to curtail apparent employee abuse of sick leave that pumps up the department's overtime costs, according to a new financial audit of the state Department of Public Safety.

The millions of dollars the state routinely pays in overtime to corrections officers at the state's four prisons and four jails has been criticized time and again in state audits and budget reviews over the past 17 years, including reports by the state auditor in 1989, 2000 and 2002.

The audit released yesterday said two employees at Halawa Correctional Facility earned more in overtime in 2005 than they earned in regular pay. One of those workers earned $36,263 in base pay and $48,069 in overtime, while another earned $34,864 in base pay and $40,105 in overtime.

Two other Halawa employees almost doubled their pay with overtime earnings, which the audit called "excessive."

Claire Nakamura, former acting director of the state Department of Public Safety, argued in a written response to the audit that about $1.6 million in prison overtime each year is unavoidable because union contracts require the state to pay overtime to corrections staffers who work on state holidays.

As for the remaining $6 million the state spent on prison overtime in fiscal 2005, Nakamura contends the state cannot eliminate much of that expense until it hires more corrections officers.

The audit found there were about 130 vacancies statewide among corrections officer positions, which also tended to boost spending on overtime as corrections staffers are called in to fill essential prison posts.

Prison administrators have argued for more than a decade, however, that even if every existing prison job were filled, the state would still need more officers to provide proper around-the-clock staffing at each prison.

The audit reviewed the records of 30 corrections officers and prison medical and food service workers who received "significant" amounts of overtime, and found overtime boosted the pay of those workers by an average of about 40 percent, or an average of $25,000 per year.

The department acknowledged that in the year ending June 30, 2005, it spent $7.6 million of its $200 million budget on overtime, including almost $4.5 million paid for overtime for workers at the state's two largest facilities.

Halawa Correctional Facility is the largest prison in the state, with about 1,100 inmates and 324 uniform staff members. The O'ahu Community Correctional Center is the state's largest jail, with about 1,150 prisoners and 375 uniform staff members.

Uniform staff includes corrections officers, food service workers and medical workers.

The audit contends there are no standard criteria for determining which program posts can be closed to avoid overtime, and no effective way to monitor people who are earning large amounts of overtime pay.

The job of containing overtime is left to wardens and watch commanders. But the audit contends that without structured criteria governing overtime, "the department is susceptible to overtime abuse and collusion" between corrections officers and watch commanders.

The audit also found that correctional workers at Halawa took an average of 33 days of sick leave during 2005, while the 104-member staff at the Women's Community Correctional Center took an average of 42 days of sick leave that year.

"The amount of sick leave is excessive, and is forcing already significant overtime costs to increase," according to the audit.

The department identified 111 cases of potentially abusive sick leave patterns in 2005, but the audit's review of sick leave claimed by 30 employees found two more workers whose records showed a potential pattern of abuse. Neither had been referred to the sick-leave monitoring program, according to the audit.

Nakamura replied that "while we do not dispute the department's high use of sick leave, we disagree with the sweeping interpretation of the sick leave data."

The department estimates about one-third of its overtime costs can be attributed to corrections officers who are covering shifts for other staff who called in sick. Nakamura said other factors, such as military leave, vacations, maternity leave and vacant positions, also contribute to overtime costs.

She also pointed out that overtime may be required if an inmate needs constant supervision under a suicide watch, needs to be accompanied to a hospital, or in cases when a large number of prisoners have to be supervised in court.

Also, women correctional officers must be paid overtime to work posts in areas of the women's prison where male officers are not allowed to work, Nakamura wrote.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.