A jury on Tuesday awarded $113.7 million to Missouri prison guards as compensation for unpaid work that they performed before and after their shifts.
The South Central Correctional Center at Licking is one of the county’s biggest employers.
The class action lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court represented 13,000 current corrections officers or those who worked at the Missouri Department of Corrections since 2007, said lead lawyer Gary Burger.
Reached by phone after the verdict, Burger said, “just to have this claim and our position vindicated by the jury is just so gratifying for these men and women. They’re so hard working.”
A department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an email, Missouri Attorney General’s office spokeswoman Mary Compton said, “This lawsuit involves actions by the Department of Corrections over multiple decades and multiple administrations. The Attorney General’s Office has been defending this lawsuit since the Koster administration and will continue to do so. We respectfully disagree with the verdict today.”
Asked about an appeal, Compton wrote, “We are carefully assessing next steps.”
Legal filings on behalf of the guards say most are stationed within a prison’s “security envelope,” meaning they have to go through a search and a metal detector, turn over cell phones, tablets and any personal property, and are in uniform and in close proximity to prisoners, or “on duty and expected to respond” the whole time.
The filings say that guards also had to follow exit procedures every day, communicate with the next shift and inventory weapons, ammunition and equipment in the case of vehicle patrol officers.
“They require corrections officers to do certain pre-shift and post-shift activities … but they don’t pay them for that,” Burger said. “This entry and exit time is the key time in the whole prison. That’s when contraband comes in. That’s when escapes happen.”
Guards had requested compensation for those activities, and had been refused, court filings say. They then filed grievances, which were rejected.
A Labor Department investigation in 2013 found overtime violations for pre- and post-shift activity of more than $500,000 at one prison, the filings say.
But the department did not investigate or act on the federal report, citing the pending suit, the filings say.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2012. Plaintiffs include guards and the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
The lawsuit said that the department violated the union contract, under which it agreed to abide by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and minimum wage laws. Burger said the guards won a breach of contract claim.
He said that in the course of the lawsuit, lawyers for the guards found evidence that the department didn’t pay officers for pre- and post-shift work “because of the tremendous cost of it all.”
He also said the department retaliated against those who complained.
“This is the forgotten police force,” Burger said of officers. Many are veterans, who return to small towns and get “the best jobs they can,” only to be “ripped off.”
“We look forward to the department of corrections paying this verdict so that these officers … can get paid the wages they’re owed,” Burger said. “We look forward to them changing their policy in the future.”