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Brown Deal Lifts Vacation Cap For California Prison Guards

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Governor Brown talks to reporters outside of the capitol

Governor Brown talks to reporters outside of the capitol

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- A contract negotiated between Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and the politically powerful prison guards’ union could prove costly to taxpayers because it lets guards bank unlimited vacation time that must be paid out when they retire, a legislative analyst said Tuesday.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the average correctional officer already has nearly 19 weeks of accumulated leave time, currently valued at $600 million. Adding more time will cost the state in the long run, said fiscal and policy analyst Nick Schroeder, though he couldn’t say how soon or how much.

The contract concessions come as Brown, a Democrat, mends ties with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a 30,000-member union that backed his campaign last year. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had battled the union, imposing a contract in 2006 that eliminated many of the concessions negotiated by his predecessor.

The pending contract contains several provisions common to all the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by Brown’s administration, including substituting one day a month of unpaid leave for the three-day-a-month furloughs Schwarzenegger had imposed to help fight the state’s multi-billion dollar budget deficits.

But the contract awaiting approval by the Legislature also has several special provisions for correctional officers.

Accumulated leave time is currently limited to 80 days for prison guards and most other state employees, though California Highway Patrol Officers can currently bank 102 days.

Employees who exceed the limit are supposed to work with their managers to schedule more time off, but that has proved unrealistic because the prisons must always be staffed, said Department of Personnel Administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley.

“It’s virtually impossible for those employees to get time off,” she said. “They’re in this catch-22 where they can’t use the time off they have, so it’s become impossible for them to not exceed the cap.”

The contract gives guards more than eight weeks off work annually, including the unpaid leave, making it more likely they will bank time to be paid out on retirement, according to the legislative analysis.

Last year, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation paid out nearly $100 million in unused leave time. The analysis said a much larger bill could come due soon: more than one-third of the guards are more than 46 years old, and most qualify to retire at age 50.

The previous contract with the guards required them to meet physical fitness standards to qualify for an incentive of up to $130 each month. The pending contract would pay the incentive if guards get a physical exam once each year, no matter their condition.

“It’s calling it a fitness incentive, but it’s really just an incentive to go to the doctor,” said Schroeder.

He and Jolley said the provision matches the contract to what has been a common practice for years.

“The notion of getting a correctional officer to go to the doctor once a year is a good thing,” said Jolley. “We don’t want them chasing down a bad guy and dropping over of a heart attack.”

Guards make up California’s second-largest state employees’ union, and their salaries eat up 40 percent of the payroll through the state’s general fund that pays for most state operations. Schwarzenegger’s predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis, had agreed to a contract that gave guards a 34 percent pay increase between 2003 and 2008. That was more than twice as high as the average increase for a state employee during that time.

The pending contract includes up to a 4 percent pay increase that would take effect July 1, 2013.

Davis agreed to the contract shortly before he was recalled from office in 2003. Schwarzenegger used the union as an example of public employee unions with too many perks and too much power.

All the pending contracts are included in a single bill, SB151 by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, that is awaiting action in a Senate committee. They need support from two-thirds of Republicans, who have called for deeper concessions from unions.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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