Taxpayers save, guards pay under Brown County's reclassification of jailers

Brown County Jail
Brown County Jail

BROWN COUNTY - You may have heard of hazard pay. That's where someone gets a bigger paycheck for doing a dangerous job.

Now workers at the Brown County Jail say they're being deprived of those extra wages. They say it's because of more fallout from the state's Act 10 law, where they lost their ability to collectively bargain. County officials say the workers are not entitled to those extra wages.

Police officers deal with criminals on the street. County Corrections officers deal with criminals in jail.

"There's a tremendous amount of danger that's in working in that facility. You're working with dangerous individuals," said Brown County Sheriff John Gossage.

So what's the difference between the two jobs? After Act 10 passed in 2011, the state considered cops public safety employees, but not jail guards. However, both police and jail guards could still retire early and receive disability pay. That's known as protective status.

Sheriff John Gossage says as jail guards get older, it becomes more difficult for them to handle young inmates, making early retirement important.

"It's always been an issue of whether or not I'm going to be able to retain qualified, good employees and that certainly was a benefit to have that protective status," said Gossage.

Jail guards expected to gain even more benefits following a Wisconsin Appeals Court ruling last summer. The court's decision reinstated full collective bargaining privileges for guards with protective status in a case from Douglas County. Brown County guards then demanded the same.

"The union was requesting all lost wages, and essentially everything under the collective bargaining," said Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach.

Streckenbach tells FOX 11 he was worried about the costs of collective bargaining.

"It's something that we would have to find in our budget and it would have cost the taxpayers of Brown County millions of dollars," said Streckenbach.

Streckenbach estimates possibly $1.5 million each year in overtime and employee retirement contributions.

The county looked at whether the jail guards legally qualify for protective status. Then, following state guidelines, Streckenbach recommended the county board take away the guards' protective status - thereby eliminating the collective bargaining requirement too.

After county board approval last month, the 148 guards who work at the Brown County Jail, received this letter from the county's administration department notifying them of the status change.

What does it mean? Jail guards will still be able to retire early, but will receive less retirement pay. New hires will face higher retirement ages. All Brown County corrections workers will no longer receive disability pay.

Brown County isn't the only county moving in this direction. The administration says since Act 10 passed, 12 counties, including Kewaunee and Fond du Lac, have changed their jailers' status to general. It's something the Wisconsin Professional Police Association's Executive Director says he sees happening more frequently.

"It has been a growing trend throughout the state for employers to try to arbitrarily strip that protective status and thereby deprive those employees of any rights to negotiate with their employers," said Jim Palmer.

Nearly 180 jail guards have filed appeals with the state challenging the reclassification. According to the WPPA, 48 of Wisconsin's 71 counties with a jail do not offer protective status for guards.

Clearly there are many jail guards frustrated by the changes in their benefits. I have been in direct contact with at least a half dozen. One told me the county is going after the jailers, another said the guards are upset and morale has dropped. However, all were hesitant to speak out on camera.

The Teamsters union wouldn't go on camera either. President John Kaiser told me, "We're reluctant to make any statements for fear of retribution to our members."

Meanwhile, Sheriff Gossage, with the county board's support, is pushing a plan by State Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) to restore early retirement and disability pay benefits, but the bill stops short of reinstating collective bargaining.

"To have people not in the protected status, I think is just unfair to them and their families because they work in a very hazardous situation and should have that extra protection," said Bies.

Bies, a former deputy sheriff, says the legislation would give counties the option to grant protective status.

If the bill becomes law, and Brown County reclassifies its corrections workers, the county would pay 10.1% instead of 7% in retirement contributions this year, funded by taxpayer dollars.

Palmer, who is also an attorney, is hopeful the bill will pass because of the protections it will provide. But he argues the measure would also give jail guards the ability to collectively bargain.

"It's not debatable that if the legislature were to pass this legislation, and these county jailers would be protective status employees, that they would automatically then constitute public safety employees with bargaining rights," said Palmer.

A legislative committee has yet to take up the measure.

Brown County Jail workers can file an appeal with the state regarding the board's decision. So far, none have.

The state says appeals cases could take up to a year and a half or more to decide.