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KOLD INVESTIGATES: Jail overtime spikes as possible staff shortage looms

More than 150 Pima County corrections officers could lose job at end of year
Published: Dec. 9, 2021 at 9:00 PM MST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 at 9:44 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Staffing shortages at the county jail are having a financial impact on the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

The news comes as the deadline for corrections officers to get vaccinated gets closer.

As of Thursday, Dec. 9, a little more than 60% of those officers have received the vaccine.

KOLD Investigative Reporter Shaley Sanders sat down with Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos and corrections officers to find out how much the department is spending on overtime and what could happen if the detention complex loses half its workforce at the end of this month.

“We are in a really bad staffing situation inside of the jail,” said Tom Frazier, a sergeant in the corrections bureau for Pima County. “I have been there almost 18 1/2 years.”

Frazier is also the President of the Pima Corrections Association, a union that claims staffing levels are now a critical concern.

“We are already exhibiting vast amounts of overtime, rolling lockdowns,” Fraizer said. “That is not how we were designed to run. It’s not good direct supervision.”

Like all Pima County employees working with vulnerable populations, corrections officers must be vaccinated by Dec. 31.

According to the latest numbers from the PCSD, out of the 425 uniformed corrections officers, 158 have yet to be vaccinated.

“January 1 is a scary date,” Frazier said. “I want the taxpayers to know that we cannot provide the level of care for these people, for our staff, if this mandate goes through. We cannot afford to lose 10 more officers let alone 200. We are not being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers, we are not being morally responsible to the employees and those under our charge.”

Corrections officer and Vice Chairman of the Sheriff’s Labor Association, Carlos Delgado, said he’s been with the county for about 15 years.

“The point of this mandate was supposed to put inmates less at risk, but if the mandate was going to go into effect today, the inmates would be put in a higher danger because we would not have the bodies to give them the proper care that they are entitled to, that they deserve,” he said. “The citizens of Pima County need to be fully aware of that.”

The officers said the staffing shortages are affecting just how much time inmates can spend outside of their cells.

“We don’t have the necessary bodies to reach minimum staffing on a daily basis, which means officers from the prior shift are being forced to stay for double shifts,” Frazier said. “That is anywhere between 16 hours and 18 hours, 18 hours if they get forced onto our overnight shift which is a 10-hour shift. This is happening two, three, or even sometimes four times a week.”

Nanos said he’s aware of the overtime numbers and the staffing levels.

“If I lost 158 bodies anywhere in this agency would that be a challenge? Absolutely,” Nanos said. “They are very valuable to us. They are part of this family and part of this organization, but the decisions I have to make aren’t just based on a popularity contest.”

Nanos said the mandate isn’t going anywhere.

“We lost three inmates this last year to COVID. I have to do everything I can to prevent that and not mandating vaccines isn’t doing everything I can,” Nanos said.

According to data obtained from the PCSD, the department budgeted $805,105 in overtime pay at the jail this fiscal year.

Through the end of November, about five months into this fiscal year, the department has spent $1,159,641.

Despite being over budget when it comes to overtime, Nanos said the department is projected to come in under budget by about half a million dollars.

Nanos said the overtime isn’t coming from staffing shortages, but from staff calling out sick.

“We learned of a plan where they were on the 12-hour shifts, one squad would tell the other squad we will call in sick next we so we get the OT and then you call in sick the next week and we get the overtime,” Nanos said.

Nanos said despite the possibility of losing half of his corrections officers, he is not worried about a major spike in overtime.

“I think overtime will be reduced because we have a greater workforce that wants to do the job,” he said. “They don’t call in sick. It might help improve morale, not decrease morale. There are a number of people over there who I have heard from who are tired of the nonsense and the games being played by these two associations.”

Frazier disagrees.

“The sheriff’s statements about staff coordinating call-ins is just not true, according to the sheriff’s commanders, sick calls in the bureau have dropped in the last six months, yet overtime expenditures have more than tripled,” he said. “Staffing is obviously an issue since sergeants and lieutenants are being forced to work outside their classification to fill corrections officer vacancies. Overtime is being hired for many shifts before sick calls are even received.”

Nanos said the staffing issues are not limited to the jail and impact the entire department.

He said when he first left the job in 2016, there were more than 1,550 employees.

When he returned in January 2021, that number had dropped to 1,350.

Nanos said his department is actively looking to recruit, and the best way to attract employees is to make sure the ones he has are happy.

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.