Frakes: Limiting Mandatory Prison Overtime Could Provoke "Public Safety Disaster"

Feb. 11, 2019, 6:18 p.m. ·

Carla Jorgens testifies overworked prison staff are "walking off their jobs." (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

A proposal to limit mandatory overtime for Nebraska prison workers risks creating a “public safety disaster,” Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Monday. An effort to allow nearly 30 percent interest on installment loans got sidetracked. And a bill to make public bodies hold a special hearing when they want to increase taxes is moving ahead.

Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart is sponsoring a proposal to limit mandatory overtime to 12 hours -- in the state’s prisons and regional centers. Wishart said she got the idea when she was going door-to-door in her district, where many prison workers live. “It is something that is burned into my mind. I would knock on people’s doors and end up waking them up. They were Correctional officers. And they would come to the door, and I have never seen people look so tired in my life,” she said.

Carla Jorgens, a 21 year veteran of the Department of Correctional Services, described a dire situation at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. “The line staff that are being hit with mandatory are now refusing to work them. Staff that have worked 2-3 double shifts a week are being hit for a fourth and a fifth. Employees are being told there’s no one to relieve them. They’re getting up and they’re abandoning their posts. They’re walking off the job,” she said.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed Wishart’s bill, predicting it could lead to a public safety disaster. “It would throw the system into a state of chaos, fueled by understaffing. We would have to put some facilities on lockdown, just to maintain order and safety. There would be no way to maintain either the internal or external security of the system without relying on other on other resources to provide personnel, for instance, utilizing the State Patrol, local law enforcement or the National Guard,” he said.

Frakes offered a practical example of what would happen if mandatory overtime were limited to 12 hours, and a sudden need for someone to fill in comes up. “The vacancy occurs at 2 o’clock. The shift needs to be filled until 10 o’clock. It is a mandatory post to safely operate the prison. So this person can only stay until 6 o’clock. Now then, where do I get the person to fill it in?” Frakes asked.

Sen. Steve Lathrop said the proposal is designed to push the Ricketts administration to offer Corrections workers more pay in current contract negotiations, to increase recruitment and retention. Security staff had a turnover rate of more than 30 percent last year. State negotiator William Wood said negotiations over mandatory overtime have reached an impasse. The current contract expires on June 30.

In debate by the full Legislature Monday, senators considered a proposal to let companies charge up to 29 percent interest on installment loans. They are currently allowed to charge up to 25 percent on the first $1,000, and 21 percent after that.

Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom, the sponsor of the bill, said it’s needed because installment loan companies like One Main Financial, with offices around the state, are being undercut by unregulated online companies that charge even more, up to 36 percent.

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said the proposal would help keep loans available to people whose credit isn’t good enough for bank loans. “ The example I would throw out is the single mom working a job that has her furnace go out and needs $4,000 or $5,000 of furnace repair, or a new furnace. And because of her situation, she does not qualify or does not have the availability (of credit) at a bank. She has exhausted friends and family. And yet she needs heat in her house,” Williams said.

But Sen. Megan Hunt said the bill was the wrong way to go about helping. “I hear a lot of people on the floor who, all of a sudden, really want to help single mothers, and really want to help people in poverty. And we think that the brilliant way that we think we’re going to do this is to allow people to borrow at a 29 percent interest rate,” Hunt said. “The people I talk to in my community, the people from my district, it’s not going to help them to be able to go deeper and deeper into debt,” she added.

After about an hour of debate, with opposition continuing, Lindstrom asked to put a hold on the bill to give him time to negotiate with opponents.

And, lawmakers took a step toward requiring local governments to hold a special public hearing if they want to collect more in property taxes than they did the previous year. Property taxes are calculated by applying a levy, or percentage, to a property’s value. If property values go up, local governments can collect more by simply holding the levy the same, or even cutting it. Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan says that can confuse voters.

“I’m would just ask to think about how fair it is to people when they can’t understand -- when they read in the paper “the rate has been cut,” and yet when they get their property tax statement, their taxes have gone up. It’s very confusing. And I think this just makes it much clearer. It gives people an opportunity to come and talk about their taxes,” she said.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward called the bill unnecessary. “I don’t see the value of this bill. I think there’s a lot of redundance (sic) that’s being accomplished by putting this bill into place. I’ve served on public boards. Everybody that serves on a public board knows that if valuations go up and you leave the levy the same, there’s going to be a tax increase. The only thing this does is it makes you sign off and have another hearing that says ‘There is a tax increase,’” Kolterman said.

Linehan’s bill got first-round approval on a vote of 35-2.