HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - At state prisons, one problem leads to another. With some prison guards constantly calling in sick, other guards covering for them are raking in major overtime pay.
A few corrections officers are making so much overtime they're more than doubling their salaries.
In the last year, prisons statewide spent $10.7 million on overtime. The average public safety employee took home 26.5 percent more than their base pay in overtime, according to state payroll records.
"I'm troubled by it, but I think the underlying problem is that overtime has to be approved and granted by management," said State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the State House Public Safety Committee. "And usually, the only time it is, is that they're suffering a staff shortage, and the reason they are short staffed is that too many people call in sick."
State payroll records showed one prison guard earned a $52,000 base salary but also took home $71,000 in overtime, collecting 137 percent of his base salary in OT for a total of $124,449 a year.
Another correctional officer whose base pay was $47,928 earned another $64,033 in overtime --134 percent of his base -- pushing his annual pay to $111,931.
Hawaii News Now found 10 guards who boosted their base pay by 80 percent or more with overtime last year.
State officials said they have no choice but to pay overtime to cover shifts to make up chronic staff shortages.
In a statement, new Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said, "This is a complicated issue for any organization that oversees 24/7 operations and finding ways to curb overtime is something we are taking very seriously."
"One of our top priorities is improving processes to efficiently fill current staffing vacancies. We continue to focus on improving recruitment and training standards as well as implementing new wellness initiatives that will help change the mindset of individuals so they come to work," Espinda said.
State Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, said, "There are many ways that we are going to be looking at this. And certainly with the new administration, we are hoping that we can make some progress."
Espinda, the new public safety chief, has been the warden at Halawa prison, where the overtime expense is just under 5 percent or $826,334, a relatively low percentage for a large facility with 410 staff.
By contrast, overtime at the Big Island's Hawaii Community Correction Center was $1.5 million in the last year, or 23.5 percent, quite high for a much smaller facility with just 166 staff.
The Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua spent $929,758, or 19 percent, on overtime in the last year, at an even smaller complex with 132 employees.
Oahu Community Correction Center, which has 498 employees, spent $3.2 million or nearly 17 percent of its salary budget on overtime.
Statewide, the staffing problem is worsened by the outdated design of old facilities, prisons officials said. For instance, one cellblock at OCCC is more than 80 years old.
"It, along with the rest of the facility, is very poorly and inefficiently designed," said Takayama, who at one time was the spokesman for the public safety department. "As a result, it requires more than double the staff than it would require at a modern facility, like say the Federal Detention Center."
The state plans to build a new OCCC complex on land next to its existing prison in Halawa. But it could take at least three to five years to complete a new facility, officials said.
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