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Jailers lose protective status with budget

Douglas County has adopted its $54.4 million budget for 2018.

But it's a revenue and spending plan that, in part, divided supervisors among responsibilities to taxpayers, county staff, the law and the right to bargain for fair wages and working conditions.

In the end, it was Douglas County jailers who lost — their status as protective employees and their right to bargain collectively.

In Wisconsin, protective status is the only class of public employees that retains the right to negotiate labor contracts since the implementation of Act 10 in 2011. The state law stripped most public employees of collective bargaining rights.

According to a ruling by the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds (ETF), jailers are considered general municipal employees and not protective status, said Mindy Dale, an attorney who represents the county on personnel matters. She said a three-part test was used to determine whether jailers should be considered general municipal employees or protective status — performing active law enforcement duties, frequent exposure to high-risk situations and a requirement for a high degree of physical conditioning. While some aspects of those criteria may be required of jailers, it's not the primary function of jailers, she said.

Working in the jail

"Over my short time at the jail, I have learned that a career in corrections is not easy," said Joey Luder, who has worked at the Douglas County Jail for a little over a year. "It truly is a thankless job."

Citing statistics from a 2013 study of corrections officers by the U.S. Department of Justice, Luder said jailers are twice as likely as police and the public to commit suicide; most will experience post-traumatic stress disorder in their career; their 58th birthday will be their last; and most only live 18 months after retirement. He said they will be assaulted at least twice in a 20-year career, which will result in time lost at work, and they face higher divorce, substance abuse and mental illness rates than the general population.

"Through my time at the jail, I have learned that the Douglas County jailers are an incredibly hardworking and dedicated group of men and women," Luder said. "I have seen firsthand what the dangers of the job can do to people. I can list many things we've had even within the last few weeks — we've had fights, had inmates get Tazed and had inmates spit on us. If you can look me in the eyes and tell me that isn't dangerous, then I guess I don't know what the word 'dangerous' means."

Luder wasn't the only jailer to address the board. Lucas Ciciora of the Douglas County Jail also addressed the board, saying it doesn't make sense financially.

"I really don't know how the financial decision makes any sense," Ciciora said.

Douglas County expects to save about 4 percent on pensions for 34 jailers and four jail sergeants. It was a savings of about $125,000 in the jail's nearly $5.3 million budget.

After three months of research, Ciciora said he's learned that it's up to the county board to determine if the job is dangerous.

"I wouldn't want to work there," said Supervisor Nick Baker, a retired high school teacher.

Ciciora, who worked at the jail in Cook County, Ill., for five years before joining the Douglas County Jail last year, said the public doesn't always hear about the inmates under the influence of methamphetamine who are ready to pick a fight when they are booked into the Douglas County Jail.

"They don't hear about what that takes when someone just swings at an officer for no reason," Ciciora said. He said it's "absurd" to think that isn't law enforcement.

Dirty work

Several County Board supervisors agreed with the jailers.

"I think this stinks," Supervisor Keith Allen said. "I think we're doing (Gov. Scott) Walker's dirty deeds ... it bothers me that we're put in this situation tonight to make this decision, and I feel it's just wrong."

Allen put forth a motion to restore $125,000 in funding to retain protective status for Douglas County jailers. Baker seconded the motion.

"My feeling is that there are different types of endangerment ... I feel that these people are working in a confined area where there is the ability to be injured easily. There's a great threat there. We know there's problems in jails," Baker said.

"We're voting to take their bargaining rights away," said Supervisor Marvin Finendale, who negotiated many labor agreements.

Jailers affected statewide

In 83 percent of Wisconsin counties, jailers are no longer considered protective status, said Anne Doucette, interim county administrator. In some smaller counties, deputies — trained law enforcement officers — serve as jailers, she said.

"If you vote to give it to them, you are essentially going against the ETF's decision and state statutes," Doucette said. "If that happens, we are open to litigation. Anyone, at any time, can sue us for not following state statutes."

She said an independent study, commissioned by Douglas County and conducted by a former Federal Bureau of Investigations supervisor, came to the same conclusion, noting jail staff are not trained or certified law enforcement officers. Doucette said jailers receive 160 hours of training, while law enforcement officers were required to have 540 hours of training at the time of the study.

Now, new law enforcement officers are required to have 720 hours of training for certification in Wisconsin.

Supervisor Sue Hendrickson said if the issue is training, the jailers should get more training, but she opposed the motion to amend the budget.

"I'm really concerned about the liability that this puts on future boards, if not this board," Supervisor Charles Glazman said.

Status stripped

The board split 13-6 against amending the budget and maintaining protective status for jail staff. Supervisors Robert Mock, Terry White, Ron Leino, Baker, Finendale and Allen favored retaining protective status.

For Ciciora, who said he doesn't want to be fighting a 20-something when he's 65, the decision hurts. Among the advantages of protective status is the ability to retire with a full pension under the Wisconsin Retirement System at age 55 because of the lower life expectancy experienced by protective service workers.

"Who wants a 55-year-old jailer wrestling around with a 22-year-old young guy?" Supervisor Alan Jaques said. "You know that protective status should be there, but when they tell us we have to ... we do have a due diligence to keep the county safe."

"We have a conscience, but we have a responsibility to follow the law," Hendrickson said. "And until that changes, we have to do what's right."