Prison Guard Contract: Governor's Office Says Media Got It Wrong

For the Governor of California, it is the kind of publicity that could doom everything.

The stories appearing this week in the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and even on this blog about the proposed contract with the state prison guards union has been brutal. Certainly critical enough to undo Jerry Brown’s effort at developing fiscal credibility with the electorate (an image he's shored up in myraid ways, from flying alone on Southwest to eliminating cell phones for state workers).

All this while arguing the importance of tax hike extensions.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the administration, led by Gil Duran, Brown's press secretary, mounted a rapid response effort which has resulted in a partial retraction from the Sacramento Bee as well as backslides on talk radio, and to some degree here, as well.

"Prop Zero betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the vacation cap issue” Duran argued in an e-mail which was followed up with a phone conversation with  Ron Yank, Brown’s head of the Department of Personnel Administration (a former labor attorney who often represented the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union in question).

The most prominent issue on this blog deals with the new contract elimination of the "vacation cap" -- the number of unused vacation days a corrections officer can collect over the course of his or her career.  Those days can then be cashed in at the guard’s pay grade at retirement, as opposed to when the vacation days were offered.

Yank argues that the "cap" never really existed in the first place and all the new contract does is admit that fact.

That’s because the prison system is a 24-7 operation, and staffing requirements mean most correctional officers can’t take all of their allotted  vacation. The union says the situation was made worse by the imposition of furloughs under the Schwarzenegger administration.

While "use it or lose it" may be a policy for private employers, there is no such thing in state employment. The "cap" was simply unenforceable.

Yank also rejected the notion that this was a "pay off" to a major campaign contributor. He says unions that supported Republican Meg Whitman are getting the same labor agreements that are being offered to groups that supported Brown.  In fact, Yank argues the CCPOA is not happy with the contract in that includes a five percent pay cut, and requires members put in more for their retirement.

We have offered the governor’s office a chance to respond in detail to the contract issue in this blog.

But it isn’t the media alone calling the deal into question. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has yet to determine the cost of lifting the cap. Still, policy analyst Nick Schroeder has found that the average corrections union member has accumulated nearly 19 weeks of leave time, with a current total value of $900 million.

Yank didn’t talk about the timing of the agreement but one wonders about the strategy of putting it out there in the middle of a debate on tax extensions or tax hikes.

He has said that since the union had been without a contract for three years it was about time they had one. Based on the media fallout, perhaps they may be wishing they had waited a few more months.

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