Troubled Tecumseh prison must return to 8-hour shifts after state loses labor ruling

LINCOLN — More trouble is coming to the state’s most troubled prison.

The state recently lost a labor ruling that will force it to end 12-hour work shifts that were implemented as an emergency measure following a deadly riot at the Tecumseh State Prison in May 2015.

The only good news is that the change back to regular, eight-hour shifts was not immediately ordered by the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations.

The labor court, in a ruling issued a week ago, said a sudden change back to eight-hour workdays would threaten security at the Tecumseh prison, where four inmates have been killed and cells were burned and ransacked in riots in May 2015 and March 2017.

“The safety of the employees and inmates must be of paramount concern,” stated David Partsch, the author of the 11-page ruling by the labor court.

The move back to eight-hour shifts could be a major challenge for the Tecumseh facility, the state’s highest-security prison. It has struggled with high employee turnover, low worker morale and the constant need for officers to work overtime to cover duties. Moving back to eight-hour shifts might require the hiring and training of dozens of new officers or an increase in overtime requirements, or both, a state employees union official said.

John Antonich, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said the majority of corrections officers want to return to normal, eight-hour shifts, though some officers like the overtime pay earned working 12-hour shifts.

“They’re probably going to have to do some hiring, and pay some more money,” Antonich said.

Dawn-Renee Smith, a state prison spokeswoman, said discussions between the two parties will determine how the transition back to the shorter shifts will occur, and whether some employees will be able to continue to have 12-hour workdays. Smith said upwards of 75 percent of the officers, corporals, sergeants and lieutenants at Tecumseh are still working 12-hour shifts because of the emergency declared three years ago.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in a prepared statement, said that “maintaining the safety of our teammates” will be the top priority in the upcoming labor talks.

By state law, the Department of Corrections has the power to shift corrections officers, in an emergency, from eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts without approval of the state labor union but can do so only temporarily.

That happened after the Mother’s Day riot in 2015. But as the longer shifts and “emergency” persisted, NAPE, the labor union that represents corrections workers, appealed to the labor court, maintaining that prison officials needed to negotiate a change in the state labor agreement to allow the 12-hour shifts to continue.

Prison and labor officials did sit down and bargain. But agreements they worked out to continue 12-hour shifts for some employees were rejected twice in votes by bargaining unit members.

Despite that, and despite agreeing to abide by the results of the votes, Frakes ordered, without explanation, that 12-hour shifts would continue “until further notice” in May of last year.

The labor court ruled that Frakes had acted in bad faith, and ordered the department to commence bargaining with the employees’ union over the return to eight-hour shifts.

State Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, whose district includes the Tecumseh prison, said Wednesday that the ruling only adds to the “uncertainty” over staffing at the facility. On a trial basis, the department has begun busing officers from Omaha, in state-paid vans, to ease the worker shortage.