At its Aug. 28 meeting the Door County Board of Supervisors was charged with coming to the tough decision on the status of county jailers by its next meeting on Sept. 27.
The 21 county board members must decide whether the jailers are public safety employees – who are entitled to negotiated contracts, higher rates of compensation and earlier retirement because of frequent exposure to a high degree of danger – or if they are general municipal employees without any special treatment.
“The longer we let it sit, it hurts morale,” said county administrator Ken Pabich in urging the board to come to a decision by next month, before the county dives into the 2019 budget.
At issue is whether the county wants to continue offering protective status to the 14 jailers – and soon to be 15 – who work at the Door County Jail. Currently, jailers work as their patrol colleagues do under the state employment classification known as “protective status,” a classification that grew out of the 2011 “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” otherwise known as Act 10, in which all but high-risk public service professions such as law enforcement and firefighting lost their right to collective bargaining.
The loss of protective status would affect everything from income to retirement age. Those laboring in professions considered protective status can retire at age 50 and receive higher disability benefits if injured in the line of work. State correctional officers are considered protective status, but county jailers are not among the list recognized by the Wisconsin Retirement System.
Under the classification for police officers, 51 percent or more of the duties must involve active law enforcement and require frequent exposure to a high degree of danger.
Tuesday’s meeting was meant for discussion before the issue goes back to the Administrative Committee for a recommendation to the full board. Sheriff Steve Delarwelle was the first to speak, and he said jail deputies in Door County have been under protected status for more than 40 years.
He said it is the employer’s duty to determine whether jailers meet the criteria of protective status, and from his perspective, they do deserve the classification. He said jailers are hired as deputy sheriffs and the job descriptions between jail and patrol officers is almost identical, except for the traffic enforcement of the patrol officer.
Delarwelle said jailers participate in active law enforcement on a daily basis, including investigating criminal activity in the jail, interviewing suspects and witnesses and crime prevention.
“They do the same job as a patrol deputy, only inside of a building,” Delarwelle said, adding that working in the jail has become an even more dangerous job.
“Our county jails have become mental health holding areas for the state,” the sheriff said.
His points were reiterated by the two challengers for his job when he retires, Chief Deputy Patrick McCarthy and jail Lieutenant Tammy Sternard.
Sternard also pointed out that the turnover rates have doubled or tripled in other counties that have done away with protective status for jailers.
“We have an obligation to protect the people that we ask to protect us,” she said. “It’s not as simple as a dollar amount. It really affects a lot of things in the county.”
Several jailers also spoke up for retaining protective status, including John Delebreau, who in February 2017 left a full-time job at the Kewaunee County Jail, which went to unprotected status, to take a part-time job in Door County for the protective status, with the hope of being full-time in the future.
“The opportunity to be protected again is what I came here for,” he said, adding that the duty disability aspect is a big issue for him. Duty disability is three times that of regular disability, he said.
“I want to know if something happens to me, my wife and child will be protected,” he said. “That gives me peace of mind and makes me do my job better.”
Delebreau said he had applied and been approved to join the department’s SWAT team. However, if the classification status is changed and he joins the SWAT team, he will face the same dangers as a protective status officer but with less compensation and fewer benefits.
He also pointed out that with the change retirement would go from 53 years to 63.
Delebreau was among a half-dozen jailers and supporters who advised the board to look at the big picture of what Door County jailers do in coming to a decision.
Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas had provided the board with a lengthy memo outlining a 2016 decision by the Wisconsin Employee Trust Funds (WETF) Board regarding 12 counties that decided to change jailers from protective to general status.
Thomas wrote that “The WETF Board determined that the jailers’ principal duties did not involve ‘frequent exposure to a high degree of danger or peril.’”
He also mentioned that while Door County jailers may argue that their duties are significantly different than the jailers in that decision, “that may prove to be a steep hill to climb,” he wrote.
At the meeting, Thomas told the board that 62 of the state’s 72 counties have made the change from protective status to general, especially right after the 2011 introduction of Act 10.
Thomas said it may not be fair to reclassify jailers, adding, “A lot of us didn’t think Act 10 was fair, but we had to deal with it.”
“You really need to apply the law,” he told the board. “Don’t think of fairness.”
Thomas said an appeals court upheld the WETF Board’s decision, so, he said it is abundantly clear that “jailers should be qualified as general, based on that.”
Thomas added that it is entirely up to the board on whether they want to think about a course of action to make the transition more fair for the jailers, a point reiterated by the county’s Human Resources Director Kelly Hendee, who said the board could make compensation adjustments for the jailers as was done when the more than 200 county employees lost their collective bargaining status with Act 10.
County Administrator Ken Pabich then addressed the board, answering a question several had asked, why now?
Pabich explained the contracts that have been in place since 2015 are expiring, and with the decision on jailers from 2016, it seemed time to consider the issue.
“It’s not a money grab,” he said, but it is about wisely managing taxpayer money, and since no one wanted to bring up the issues of overtime pay and wages, which Pabich said “are out of whack if you look at our comparables,” he said the alternative is to look at this as a way to save taxpayer money.
In information provided by the county, in 2017 there was $133,000 in overtime salary at the jail. A fourth-year jailer’s pay in Door County is $31.09 an hour, while the average mid-point pay scale at comparable counties is $23.
The county also provided an annual look at the protected vs. general. The regular wage for a protected job is $60,532.23, with another $5,129.85 in overtime, while the general employee earns $47,840 and another $828 in overtime.
“Unfortunately, some of it does come down to money,” Pabich said, but added that it does not have to change how the county deals with employees.
He also advised the board members that “everyone’s going to throw stuff and try to make it stick” but they have to remember that they represent the taxpayers.
“We are an outlier in our operations,” Pabich said, adding that this tool provided by Act 10 is a way to bring the county back into the fold.