Jail correctional officers vote to unionize

Published: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 7:37 p.m.

Corrections officers at the Alachua County jail voted to unionize Wednesday, approximately three months after Sheriff Sadie Darnell cut their overtime and holiday benefits to reduce the department budget.

When the vote is certified in approximately two weeks, Gator Lodge 67, Fraternal Order of Police will represent 231 correctional officers through the rank of sergeant.

"These guys are hungry for a voice, very hungry," FOP President Jeff McAdams said.

He said the elimination of holiday pay and the reduction in overtime pay had corrections officers "irate." That along with safety concerns over the officer-to-inmate ratio at the jail were factors in the decision to unionize, McAdams said.

Darnell said the decision did not come as a surprise, as many employees are disgruntled about pay in the current economic climate. She agreed there was a need for more officers at the jail. She noted that she had asked the County Commission in 2007 for 48 additional jail positions and received 24.

"I recognize, and have from that time, that the jail is understaffed," Darnell said. "It creates an employee safety issue and a safety issue for the inmates."

The roots of the vote to unionize date back to December, when most of the Sheriff's Office employees voted to give up the double-time-and-a-half pay they receive to work holidays in exchange for raises generally in the range of 2.5 percent. Jail officers voted not to do so.

Then, in late March, Darnell announced that to prepare for cuts of $700,000 to $1.5 million in the coming fiscal year, she was eliminating jail officers' holiday pay and increasing the threshold of hours they have to work in a pay period to receive overtime from 80 to 84.

Darnell noted that -- unlike patrol, which is funded primarily through the law enforcement Municipal Services Taxing Unit -- the jail is funded through the county's general fund, which was expected to bear the brunt of the budget cuts.

Darnell said she instituted holiday and overtime cuts in order to avoid layoffs. She said jail officers knew those cuts were a possibility when they voted not to sacrifice their holiday pay for raises and that she has to balance employees' interests with those of taxpayers.

"I try to fight for the interests of the employees, and I do it for free," Darnell said. "With a union, you have to pay."

Those dues will be $20 a pay period, McAdams said. He said jail officers told him they were not aware their holiday and overtime benefits could be cut when they voted down the raise. The cuts, he said, came "without any warning."

McAdams added that he hoped to forge a "harmonious" working relationship with Darnell.

The corrections officers had a choice between the FOP and the North Central Florida Police Benevolent Association. Of the 231 eligible officers, 161 participated in the vote, according to the FOP. Seventy-one percent of them selected the FOP, 22 percent voted for the PBA, and 7 percent voted not to unionize, an FOP release stated. The FOP is the primary bargaining unit for Gainesville Police Department.

The PBA represents Alachua County Sheriff's Office road deputies and supervisors and Gainesville Police Department lieutenants.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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