State appeals in battle over prison shifts

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is appealing decisions ordering state corrections officials to drop efforts to switch from 12-hour to eight-hour work shifts without negotiating the changes with a union representing prison employees.

Siding with the Florida Police Benevolent Association in the contract dispute, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last month upheld an “opinion and award” issued in April by arbitrator Marc A. Winters.

“Arbitration awards are afforded a high degree of conclusiveness and courts do not attempt to substitute their judgment for that of the arbitrator,” Dodson wrote in the Oct. 16 order.

Dodson’s decision was another setback for the embattled Florida Department of Corrections, which has run years-long financial deficits, chronically grappled with staffing vacancies and high turnover rates and struggled to maintain aging facilities.

The wrangling over the work hours stems from shift reductions initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. Corrections officials maintain the shift-hour modifications are necessary to save money and make prisons safer.

But the PBA argued that the “plain language” in its contract with the state “required negotiations to occur prior to any change in normal work hours.”

The shift-hour modification “has caused a reduction in wages and has had other negative effects on the officers,” lawyers for the PBA argued. They also said the Department of Corrections “has embarked on a course of conduct which is aimed at expanding the change” to other correctional facilities without negotiating with the union.

Winters found the contract language was “very clear and unambiguous” and ordered the department to “cease and desist any unilateral implementation of converting and scheduling 12-hour employees and return any such employees to the status quo.”

The union filed the lawsuit in May, asking the court to uphold the arbitrator’s order.

But in a June motion to vacate the arbitration award, state lawyers argued that Winters “lacked jurisdiction” to resolve the dispute, which they maintained is the “exclusive jurisdiction” of the Public Employees Relations Commission.

Dodson, however, found the state failed to make its case, writing that he “rejects defendants’ argument that the arbitrator exceeded his authority. Defendants have not identified any other basis that would justify overturning the award.”

The shift reductions began in 2018 following audits of staffing levels, first ordered by Scott in 2014.

The corrections agency initiated the eight-hour shifts at five prison mental-health units, after asking the Legislature for money to launch the pilot program. The eight-hour shifts are also in effect at two state prisons, according to court documents.

“The intent of the eight-hour shifts at these selected mental health units is to ensure the safety and security of the institution and improve the quality of life of those mentally ill individuals who are incarcerated,” the state’s lawyers wrote in the June motion. “The eight-hour shift allows these mentally disabled inmates to have greater staff interaction, improved consistency in their daily routine, increased access to therapy and programs, and closer supervision.”

In asking Dodson to overturn Winters’ decision, the state argued that “public policy favored the change in work shifts” and that a return to the 12-hour shifts “would create an unsafe environment for the staff and inmates.”

The state also contends that the Legislature ordered the eight-hour shifts, and that a change in the shifts “would unlawfully grant the PBA a legislative veto.”

Also, DeSantis’ administration blamed the shift changes on a settlement in a separate lawsuit, in which Disability Rights Florida challenged staffing levels at certain correctional facilities. Under a court-approved settlement, the state pledged to seek funds to ensure adequate staffing levels.

But the PBA argued that the disabilities case has nothing to do with the contract requiring the state to negotiate before altering workers’ shifts.

“We believe they’re selling a false narrative to the Legislature. They’re not giving them the real picture,” Stephanie Webster, the union’s general counsel, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Thursday. “This was somebody’s brainchild, this eight-hour shift, and for whatever reason, they don’t want to give it up. They continue to forget that these officers have constitutional rights. They’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

Union representatives say that, contrary to the agency’s position, the reduction in shift hours creates a more dangerous prison environment. Instead of reducing overtime for workers, correctional officers working eight-hour shifts end up working two shifts, back-to-back, Matt Puckett, the union’s executive director, told the News Service.

Puckett called it “offensive” that the state agency “flouted” the bargaining rights of corrections’ workers by launching the shift changes.

“They changed and uprooted thousands of officers’ lives. It isn’t going to save money, and they’re actually working more. And they’re doing all this on the taxpayers’ dime,” Puckett said.

During an appearance before a House committee last month, Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said he is seeking $29 million to convert one-third of the state prisons’ 12-hour shifts to eight-hour workdays.

For the program to work, the state agency would need to hire roughly 300 new prison guards, according to a legislative budget proposal submitted by the agency.

“You have vacancy problems now, how are you going to a program that requires more officers? Their solution to that is to work the death out of the officers,” Jim Baiardi, president of the PBA’s state corrections chapter, said in an interview.

The union representatives accused the state of “prolonging” the issue by filing the notice of appeal of Dodson’s decision with the 1st District Court of Appeal on Wednesday.

The dispute could have been resolved by now, if negotiations between the state and the union resulted in an impasse, Baiardi suggested. Under Florida law, the Legislature resolves collective-bargaining impasses between executive agencies and unions.

“Maybe we would have lost at impasse before the Legislature, but we would have accepted it,” Baiardi said.