Corrections employees, OPEA, again decry furloughs, in plea for supplemental dollars
By Patrick B. McGuigan
Today (Monday, October 18), members of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA) who are Department of Corrections Employees called on administrators of the agency and other state officials to suspend furloughs that have been required to keep the state budget in balance.
The group made a prior plea for an end to agency furloughs in August.
Sterling Zearley, executive director at OPEA, asserted, “We cannot afford to continue to ask these men and women to take a cut in pay while locking up more people. These employees put their lives on the line daily and are now asked to do so with fewer employees and more inmates than ever before. I want to thank those men and women who go to work everyday to keep the citizens of Oklahoma safe, however it is becoming increasingly difficult to staff facilities and protect the public and the employee.”
“The state is creating a hardship on families financially and they are creating a very unsafe environment for the employees and the citizens of Oklahoma,” Zearley said.
In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK on possible cuts elsewhere in government that might be used to supplement the Corrections budget, Zearley did name an agency budget he thought should be cut. However, he pointed to a voluntary buyout (VBO) program in this year’s budget that was not fully utilized. He said of a potential of $10 million in VBOs, only $1 million was utilized. He proposed state officials use the $9 million to “stop the furloughs at Corrections.”
Zearley repeated contentions that Corrections “is operating at 69% of its allotted correctional officer staffing while operating at 99% capacity. The department has increased its inmate total by 721 over the past year. These employees cannot continue to honor the Department’s Mission statement of Protecting the Public, Protecting the Employee, and Protecting the Offender at these rates.”
Pointing both to safety concerns and financial difficulties facing some department employees, Zearley said, “The Department needs to stop the furloughs now and the new legislative leadership must agree to provide a supplemental appropriation to cover the shortage of funds.”
A Corrections Officer at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC) who is a single parent, Chad Reid, said, “The furloughs are making it hard on me and my son. Because of the furloughs I have to pick up shifts to cover the staff and I may go two or three days without seeing my son, plus I have to pay additional day care costs and that takes money away from us for other things.”
“When my husband and I set our budget we set it at a point of what we both made, but now with the furloughs our income has decreased by about 10% and we have to figure out what we can live without,” said Teresa Mathews, a Correctional Officer IV at Lexington.
“When we have had shortages of staff in the past my family has suffered tremendous crisis and I see that happening again,” Mathews said in a prepared statement. She added this comment to reporters: “I don’t see it getting better. I see it getting worse. Tension is increasing for everyone involved.”
A large contingent of Corrections’ officers joined Zearley at today’s conference. Also speaking to reporters at today’s press briefing in the state Capitol were Carri Cray, a Central District Community Corrections officer, and Sgt. James Caskey, who observed, “We work in an unsafe place ever day.” He and other officers said it is their sworn duty to protect the public and to keep offenders safe in the prison environment, and that recent budget cuts were making that difficult.
Zearley said, “These furloughs are not only hitting the uniform staff at the Department, we have non-uniform staff, such as case managers and unit managers that are also being affected by taking the furlough days and picking up the slack when officers are required to take time off. I want the public to know that it is an increased burden on all employees of the department.”
Oklahoma Public Employees Association (www.opea.org) describes itself as a non-profit labor organization that has represented the interests of state employees since 1975. The group has recently been in a public disagreement with the Oklahoma Education Association over State Question 744. At the press conference, in response to questions, Zearley emphasized he was still opposed to the measure, and was encouraging OPEA members and friends to oppose it.