MARYSVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) – For some correction workers at a Marysville women’s prison, the end of their shift looks like walking to the parking lot and dozing off inside their car.
At the end of a 16-hour day at the state-operated Ohio Reformatory for Women, some employees are left “exhausted and overworked,” opting for the back seat of the car over commuting back home to their memory foam mattress, according to long-time correction officer Tom Holden.
“We’re tired going to and from work,” he said. “After working multiple shifts, 16-plus hours, we’re on the roadways with everyone else driving home. I mean, we’re a safety hazard because of the state of Ohio.”
That’s why Holden and other unionized employees, of the Ohio Civil Service Employee Association union, at the 106-year-old prison plan to picket Monday against what they called lousy working conditions – staff shortages, inflexible scheduling, and mandatory overtime that often leaves them with nothing left to give.
JoEllen Smith, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which oversees the ORW, said in an email that prison management has taken several efforts – including wage increases, overtime bonuses, and free lodging – to alleviate employee hardships.
“Director [Annette] Chambers-Smith recognizes the difficult jobs the staff are tasked with each day,” Smith said. “Our staff continue to come to work each day and work towards a common goal of operating safe prisons as one team with one purpose.”
‘Holding us hostage’: Mandatory overtime, changes to shift bidding process
A 17-year veteran of the prison’s workforce and president of the ORW’s union, Holden said he and his coworkers are tasked with around-the-clock supervision of the nearly 2,500 women behind the prison’s bars.
While the facility normally employs around 500 staff members, Holden said about 90 positions are vacant as of about three weeks ago, citing ORW’s personnel numbers. Management is “holding us hostage,” Holden said, prompting employees to walk “out the door left and right.”
“You see the defeat in officers’ faces at that prison,” he said.
Patti Hill, an OCSEA labor representative assigned to the ORW, said management made changes to the prison’s seniority-based bidding process, which allows employees to improve their “work-home balance” by requesting a different shift assignment – first, second or third.
“I’ll go to first or special duty, or I want to be off on a Tuesday because that’s when the softball games for most of [the kids] are,” Hill said. “Morale takes another hit from that, like, I can’t make changes to make it better in my life.”
Smith, however, said the union’s claims that management has frozen its bidding process is misleading. ODRC’s bidding process continues, she said, with effective dates being “strategically selected to equalize shift coverage across all three shifts” as management recruits new hires.
“For example, if most people with seniority bid to first shift, that will leave unbalanced vacancies during second and third shifts, creating more mandatory overtime,” Smith said. “Because of the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week nature of our operations, we cannot have an imbalanced staffing pattern heavily weighted to Saturdays and Sundays off.”
Staff say they’re ‘no good to these inmates’
A correction officer’s job is physically and emotionally demanding, Hill said, and when officers aren’t operating at 100% capacity, they’re “no good to these inmates if [they] can’t be watchful for their safety.”
There’s been a handful of assaults against staff in the prison’s mental health unit, Holden said, and his shifts occasionally include breaking up a fight or being the target of a thrown object.
“When people are that tired, they make bad decisions,” Holden said. “You’re not thinking clearly or you’re angry or you’re taking your anger out on, you know. A well-rested officer is the best officer. Nobody gets sleep anymore.”
Correction officers are also tasked with transporting pregnant women – and mothers whose babies live with them in the ORW’s nursing program – to hospitals and doctors’ offices, Holden said.
“Mom and baby in the back and tired officers on the roadways going to and from OSU and other medical appointments – it’s just, it’s very bad for business,” he said.
Salary boost, hotels provided by ORW leadership
ORW Warden Teri Baldauf, Smith said, keeps an “open door policy” and regularly meets with union leadership, most recently on Aug. 22, to talk about potential solutions to issues at the prison.
“For our current, valued staff members, their safety and well-being has always been a priority,” Smith said. “When staffing shortages do happen and staff are mandated to work overtime, we understand that can create a hardship and efforts have been put in place to help ease some of those hardships for our staff.”
- 5.3% wage increase in April plus 3% raise in July for correction officers in the first step of the pay range
- “Our most senior officers will see an approximate 13.8% increase now and with the general wage increase of 3.0% in July, will be making approximately 17.2% more than they do today,” she said.
- $50 per overtime shift, on top of overtime pay, through a “teamwork incentive” implemented last year
- Labor agreement allows some staff to volunteer to work needed overtime
- Lodging, food provided for staff mandated to work overtime
Prison staff are barred from launching a strike because of their role as law enforcement, as striking presents a public safety concern. Employees can picket, Holden said, only when they’re not scheduled to work.
About 30 to 40 people are expected to fill in the picket line on Monday, a number that continues to grow, Holden added. Even retired workers and former ORW management plan to “show up to support.”
“I’ve worked there for 17-and-a-half years; I’ve seen how well that place can run because it hasn’t always been like this,” Holden said. “I want to get back to that. We need to get back to that before something bad happens.”
The union is expected to picket outside the prison at 1479 Collins Ave. from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday.