Falling down

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  November 5, 2008

Robert Murphy, of Waldoboro, a former guard, told the Labor Committee that a recent class of recruits averaged 20 years old. And, at a shift-change briefing for 40 officers, he said, he was the most senior man — with two years’ experience.

Scherr says the prison is “losing all the experienced people, and it takes about five years to know what you’re doing. They can’t even afford to lose the incompetent people now.”

Complaints on deaf ears
Scherr says that as union president he met with Magnusson in late 2006 to go over 55 guard complaints, but “He stopped the meeting,” Scherr says. “He didn’t want to hear it.”

He’s not alone in getting such a (non)response. Magnusson refused several requests for an interview about guard complaints and their causes, and he didn’t respond to e-mailed questions, including questions on the age of recruits. In a State House hallway encounter with this reporter, however, Magnusson did say that “98 percent” of the personnel at the prison feel differently than the “disgruntled” guards who have spoken out.

But Matthews, the AFSCME staffer, told the Labor Committee that a root cause of guard complaints is “budgetary.” Maine ranks in the bottom quarter of states in correctional-officer pay, he said, quoting Magnusson that the pay was not adequate for many guards to live on.

The compensation may not seem bad, though, to many Mainers with only a high-school education or GED, which is all that’s required for a guard’s job. Beginning pay at the prison, based on a 42.5-hour week (including 2.5 hours of scheduled time-and-a-half overtime), is $31,700 per year or $14 an hour. This is no fortune: The Maine Center for Economic Policy says a minimum livable wage for — as an example — a single parent with one child in Knox County, where the prison is located, is $16.70 an hour or $35,000 a year. (New Hampshire beginning guards are paid about the same as Maine’s; Vermont guards make about a dollar more an hour.)

But guards get health insurance and other state benefits, and overtime hours add a lot to the paycheck. Just five hours of unscheduled overtime a week would bring the average beginning salary to $37,160 a year. In Maine, the average male worker makes only $35,063. Long-time guards make up to $17 an hour.

But here’s the rub: The overtime is mandatory. The prison cannot leave a pod unguarded; guards must fill in the numerous holes in the schedule as part of their job. Not infrequently, they work back-to-back shifts, and some work up to 40 overtime hours a week, Scherr told the Labor Committee. Guards often look at overtime as oppressive.

The prison has been spending well over $2 million a year for overtime, according to the department, which says the average overtime per guard — both scheduled and unscheduled — is 5.75 hours a week (1600 hours a week divided by 278 guards). But this number is without figuring in sick leave and vacations that have to be covered. Calculating these at four weeks a year per guard, and figuring in vacancies (26 recently) that also have to be covered, the average overtime comes out close to seven hours a week. So guards are working, on average, nearly a six-day week.

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