Florida Prison Issues At Center Of Union Fight Over Representing Correctional Officers

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For years, the Florida Police Benevolent Association represented thousands of correctional officers and probation officers. That is until five years ago, when those officers voted be represented by the Teamsters Union.

“We lost an election in 2011, but we maintained an amount of officers that stayed with the PBA,” said Matt Puckett, the FPBA’s Executive Director. “Especially over the last couple of years, there’s been a very growing course of officers coming to us, saying ‘hey, could you hold another election? We’d like to come back to the PBA.’ So, we decided this year to give it a shot.”

Puckett says the Teamsters contract expired last month. So, the association is in the process of triggering an election. By collecting more than 6,000 signatures, they have enough to file an election petition—which must first be verified.

In the meantime, Puckett says his union has been listening to correctional officer complaints. The main one he says is the Teamsters’ “nearly invisible presence in the Legislature.”

“Correctional officers feel that they don’t have the same voice that they had when the PBA was their bargaining rep in the legislature,” he added. “But even at the institution, a really big complaint that we’ve heard a lot about is that the Teamsters just haven’t really been available. A lot of people don’t know who they are. They haven’t seen them since 2011. You know, despite maybe some things that they were upset with us years ago, one thing they always agreed on is that we were always there. You know, maybe we didn’t always have the best news to deliver, but we at least showed up and made them aware of what we were trying to do.”

But, the Teamsters Statewide Coordinator Les Cantrell disagrees. He says his union spoke to lawmakers on everything from staffing levels to better pay, which Cantrell says they’re still working on. While Cantrell admits in the time they took over correctional officers have only received one raise, he says there were some other wins.

“Special comp is something that was very, very important to our members with regard to holiday pay,” said Cantrell. “Basically in the past—transitioning from the time of the PBA to us taking over the contract—if a correctional officer worked on a holiday, they’d get special comp. Well, the way the contract was set up in the past, you had so much time to use it and then you lost it. And, they were so short-handed, they couldn’t use it. We’re very happy that we were able to go ahead and make some forward movement in regard to that.”

Still, some within Cantrell’s own union agree with the PBA about the Teamsters’ overall lack of a legislative presence, like Kim Schultz. The Miami probation officer is hoping to become the next President of the Teamsters Union.

“I’m not going to disagree with that,” said Schultz. “That’s one of the reason I’m running because I’ve been very active and it’s been my position that there’s more that we could be doing that we’re not. However, I don’t believe that PBA is the answer. I’ve been a probation officer for over 20 years, 20 years with the state and two years with the county. And, I was a PBA member, up until I joined the Teamsters. And, potentially, I think we could do a lot better with the Teamsters.”

Joined by other correctional officers, Schultz trekked to Tallahassee quite a few times, speaking on legislative issues. But, she says she did that on her own as a concerned officer.

Among her concerns were pay raises and the prisons’ understaffing levels.

In fact, she recently sent a letter to Senate President Andy Gardiner, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and Governor Rick Scott, calling for a special session to resolve what she calls the “severe understaffing crisis.”

Officials, officers, and all agree an overstressed and understaffed prison workforce has contributed to correctional officers-on-inmate assaults.

And, pointing to two prison riots in the Panhandle in the past six months, Schultz says it’s also endangering correctional officers’ lives.

“With continued staffing shortages—which was all discussed during the legislative session,” she added. “I mean the [Florida Department of Corrections] Secretary testified as to the shortages and I’ve spoken about parity of pay, not getting adequate funding or pay, which is why the officers are leaving. And, this is now the second riot that they’ve had at Franklin and my guess is there’ll probably be more occurrences as we continue to lose officers, at least the experienced and more qualified officers.”

But, during a recent visit to Tallahassee, Senate President Gardiner says he sees no need for a special session.

“Sadly, I think you’re seeing a lot of politics being played when it comes to demanding special sessions, having surveys so that people can use it in a political campaign,” said Gardiner. “It’s unfortunate. I think most people realize that the legislature will come back and they’ll address that issue, if they need to address that.”

Meanwhile, both the Teamsters and the Florida Police Benevolent Association say they’re both confident they’ll win as the union to represent correctional and probation officers.

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