LINCOLN — The chief of the union that represents state corrections officers said Friday that the union agrees with Gov. Pete Ricketts that something needs to be done soon to address low wages, mandatory overtime and high turnover among the security forces in state prisons.
But Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said that he disagrees with the governor on how that should be done, and he questions Ricketts’ sincerity in addressing the problems of front-line corrections workers.
Marvin said the union has asked several times in recent months to open up labor negotiations, but those requests landed on “deaf ears” until Thursday, just after a new spate of assaults on prison workers.
“I think they’re playing a game,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, they need to show they’re doing something about this.”
The governor’s spokesman, Taylor Gage, rejected that. He said the governor has launched a serious attempt to “address the safety and well-being of corrections workers.”
“The Ricketts administration wants to work with the union, and we encourage Mr. Marvin to come to the table, so we can move forward together on behalf of our corrections team,” Gage said.
The Corrections Department staffing problems rose to the fore this week after a disturbance at the Lincoln Correctional Center on Wednesday night sent nine staffers to the hospital.
While corrections officials said the Wednesday assaults were not due to manpower problems, a group of state lawmakers said the injuries were a symptom of those problems. Because of high turnover and a large number of unfilled jobs, officers are less experienced and often working overtime.
Ricketts issued a press release late Thursday night saying that he had asked union representatives to “immediately” begin negotiations for corrections staff. He said most of the staffing problems related to pay and scheduling issues.
Marvin, who didn’t see the release until Friday, said that he’s willing to discuss the governor’s ideas, but because the union’s past requests to bargain had been rebuffed, the union had focused on providing an initial bargaining proposal on Sept. 1, the deadline prescribed in state law. To change course at the “11th hour” is problematic, he said. He said he was also concerned that cutting a separate deal just for corrections officers violates state statutes that require any such negotiations to include all workers in a particular bargaining unit.
Gage and two members of the labor negotiation team with the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services disputed that. They said that higher pay raises were negotiated for three groups of employees in the state’s last contract with the union, and that could be done for corrections workers.
They added that they were aware of only one previous offer to negotiate, in June.
Marvin, though, said that those deals were cut as part of negotiations for the larger state employees contract, and that it wouldn’t be proper to do that as part of some “special,” separate talks.
He added that he directed several of his offers to negotiate to corrections officials, and not to Administrative Services.
Bill Wood, the state’s chief labor negotiator, said the bottom line for the Ricketts administration is the desire to address the staffing problems with corrections as soon as possible.
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