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State offering $49.5M to settle overtime claims for corrections officers

Missouri is offering Department of Corrections employees routinely shorted on their pay a $49.5 million settlement to drop a lawsuit scheduled for trial in June.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the money Tuesday as a budget amendment from Gov. Mike Parson’s administration. The budget will also include ongoing funds to pay officers for the time they are on site in the prison, picking up equipment and reporting to their duty post.

“We are in mediation and we think this will get finalized really quickly,” state Budget Director Dan Haug told the committee.

The lawsuit is more than a decade old. In August 2018, a Cole County jury awarded $113.7 million to corrections officers for the time from when they log in as present until they reach their duty post. The award was upheld in October 2019 by the Western District Court of Appeals and last June by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, however, said the case needed more work to determine exactly what should be compensated and what should not.

In the unanimous opinion written by Judge Patricia Breckenridge, the court ruled that officers must be paid from the moment they perform the first task “integral and indispensable” to their jobs until they have completed the last such task.

The circuit court, she wrote, needs to examine each activity and the order they are performed to determine when pay should begin and when it should end.

At the start of every shift, corrections officers must log their arrival, most go through a security screening for weapons and contraband and report for their duty assignment. They obtain keys and radios and walk through the prison to their post, all the while on alert to respond to any emergency or security incident that occurs anywhere in the prison.

After they are relieved at the end of their shifts, corrections officers must pass on any information needed by the next shift, turn in keys and radios and log out. Some have other duties, such as officers who patrol in vehicles, who must inventory the equipment in the vehicle at the end of every shift.

Prior to the 2018 jury verdict, officers received no pay for those activities.

Obtaining radios and walking to their post is clearly an activity that should be compensated, Breckinridge wrote. The other activities need to be examined in isolation and in context of whether they occur before or after compensation must begin.

Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker has set aside eight days for a trial scheduled to begin June 7. 

Gary Burger of St. Louis, a lawyer who represents the corrections officers, declined to comment on the settlement appropriation or whether he thinks mediation is likely to succeed.

Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said the office considered the Supreme Court ruling to be a victory because it “substantially reduced the original amount, a massive savings for Missouri taxpayers.”

In its pleadings to the high court, Schmitt’s office argued that corrections officers were not due any additional pay for the period between their arrival at the prison and when they report to their duty post.

“The Department of Corrections will assume responsibility for paying all money owed out of their budget and nothing will come out of the state’s Legal Expense Fund,” Nuelle wrote.

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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