Happy New Year! Now take this 25% pay cut

A special retention pay authority the Justice Department used to retain certain Bureau of Prisons employees expires in a few days. This affects employees of the Federal Correctional Institution Thomson in Illinois. The result: A Christmastime pay cut of 25% for correctional officers and other employees. For more of what is going on, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Jon Zumkehr, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 4070.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Tell us exactly what’s going on. A pay cut of 25%. This is taking you back to basically the pay you had before this yearlong special retention authority started.

Jon Zumkehr Yeah. So Thomson used to be a state facility and it was bought out by the Obama administration. And Sen. [Dick] Durbin (D-Ill.) changed it into a federal prison. And the reason it got changed is the state of Illinois could not staff officers at the prison. The federal government thought that you could do a better job. And they failed. So we worked with Sen. Durbin, also Sen. [Tammy] Duckworth (D-Ill.), and we got a retention bonus to retain the staff at Thompson. And we had that now for two years. It’s something that the director of the Bureau of Prisons can extend; it doesn’t expire. It’s something that she has to remove and she chose to remove it. Now, we’ve lost 203 staff over the last two years. We changed our mission from a high security prison to a low security prison, which knocked our numbers down. But we are currently right now under the new mission, short 71 officers. We’re authorized to have 471. We currently have 400 with another 15 leaving. That puts us right now at 84%. We’ll be below 80% at the end of January. So that’s a big concern to us. We’re fighting to keep this pay because we want to keep the retention here at Thompson. We want to keep the officers here at Thomson and we want to keep this prison open.

Tom Temin And just a little bit of background, Thomson has been a pretty tough facility, hasn’t it?

Jon Zumkehr Yeah. So we used to be called a special management unit, which they took all the bad actors, which were very disruptive inmates and put them all at one location. And that was at Thomson, Illinois, in the special management unit. So that got shut down last year and we got converted into a low security prison. Now, keep in mind, we’re a maximum security locked down prison, and they’re trying to convert it into a low security prison. We don’t have programing space. That’s the one thing that we’re trying to fight with this director, is to make this a program friendly place. And she’s fighting us. She’s not giving us the tools that we need to be successful. And then she cut our retention bonus. So it just doesn’t make any sense why she did that. We’ve reached out to her office. She refuses to respond to us. We reached out to her director. He refuses to respond to us. And the national unions have also reached out and they have not got a response on this either. So it doesn’t make sense. We just want to know why if we keep losing staff over and over and over again, we’ve never had been fully staffed and we’re struggling to retain staff. Your solution to the problem is to cut the pay by 25% and add a thousand new inmates. It just doesn’t make any sense. And that’s where we’re trying to get the politicians behind us to say, Hey, Sen. Durbin, you brought this prison to Illinois and you’re letting this director shut this place down. I mean, by shut it down, if you don’t have staff, you can’t keep this place open.

Tom Temin By the way, the person we’re speaking about is Colette Peters, who was appointed by President Biden to take over. I think she came in from Oregon and has been on the show actually some months back. Let me ask you this. During the period that this pay bonus was in place, did that affect the turnover? Did that keep people actually employed there?

Jon Zumkehr Yeah, it kept people here. It got people to transfer to Thomson because they wanted the higher pay. And some of the reasons we got the higher pay is we’re a remote location. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The housing cost is, it’s high in this area rather than the surrounding areas, and the child care. There isn’t child care around here. So those are like some of the factors that we face. And then this is a hard to fill location from the state of Illinois to the federal government. So those are the reasons why we need that. Those are all fall under OPM’s criteria for that. And now we’re at 84% and we’re going to drop below 80. And she wants to cut this. And I’ll tell you this, we had represents warrants in Illinois District 17 come to Thomson a couple of weeks ago. The warden at Thomson told him, we need to keep this pay in place, otherwise we will lose a lot of staff. The HR manager, same thing. We need to keep this retention pay in place or we will lose staff. The director is ignoring the boots on the ground and making a decision that she’s just I don’t know why. It doesn’t make any sense why she would do this. Like the data clearly shows we need it. If you look at the long term which when we fought for the retention, they said, hey, we like to look at a two year graph. Well, we’re looking at the data for two years and we lost 203 staff. The graph chart shows that we’re heading straight down. And the solution is to cut the pay.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with John Zumkehr. He’s president of AFGE Local 4070, which represents employees of the Thomson Illinois facility of the Bureau of Prisons. And you mentioned it’s pretty remote. Are conditions at least settled down with respect to the bad guys that have been removed from there permanently. Is it at least a safer situation than it was?

Jon Zumkehr It’s a new prison, where the newest federal prison in the bureau right now. So we’re dealing with a lot of issues. The number one issue is we don’t have programing space. With this new warden, we have a new leadership in, they replaced the whole leadership team brought new leadership in. The new leadership is actually working well with us, is working with the staff and trying to get programs here. That’s the biggest fight, is we want to get programs. And when I say programs, is we want to keep the inmates busy. We want to keep them in programs like we created a welding program to give them skills. So hopefully they don’t come back when they get out. That’s the goal with the program means that we’re trying to fight, but we’re a maximum security prison and they’re trying to make it into a programing spot. So we need to kind of redo a lot of things. But a great example, they order trailers to come into the prison, but they didn’t measure the trailers that the central office did, didn’t measure it. It’s programing trailers like a classroom, and now they can’t fit in the prison. They’d have to get a helicopter to bring the trailers in. So they canceled it. So we don’t have building space for these new inmates coming in. And that’s, again, a problem that we’re raising because, again, it’s an issue. Our job is not to warehouse these inmates. Our job is to program them. And that’s what we’re doing right now under Director Peters is just warehousing inmate here at Thomson.

Tom Temin Where’s Johnny Cash when you really need them, I guess, these days. And tell me, the conditions there then are boring. And I guess that can contribute to unrest or to trouble if inmates don’t have something to do, then sounds like.

Jon Zumkehr Yeah, a great example is we had four staff go to the hospital because of drug exposure in the last 40 days. Four staff were sent to the outside hospital for drug exposure at Thomson. And again, I attribute that to is programing we want to keep. You’re going to have people that will do bad things. You’re not going to stop that. But if we can keep people busy, incentivize them not to do dumb things, I think that will help out. But we need the support from the director on this.

Tom Temin And getting back to the pay issue, just give us an average of what the pay was with the bonus and what it will drop to on the average employee, there.

Jon Zumkehr Are the average employed employee will take about a $16,000 pay cut. And the reason that is important is the factories pay more in the local area than it does to work in a federal prison. The state of Illinois pays more than it does to work in a federal prison. So ask yourself, why would you want to come work at Thomson when you can make more in a factory with one year in than you do right now at Thomson with the retention in place? And keep in mind these numbers that I’m giving you, the 71 short, these are all with the retention in place. Dec. 31 is when she’s ordering it to be removed. And I want to be very clear, it does not expire. She has lied to Congress and said our retention bonus expires. It does not expire. The policy is very clear. She has to request to remove it. So it’s something that she’s requesting through [Department of Justice (DOJ)] to OPM to remove. But that’s important to know that these numbers that we’re talking about are pre removing the retention. And once they remove it, we will have an exodus.

Tom Temin Sure. And so at this point, then it’s kind of a fait accompli unless something happens at the last minute.

Jon Zumkehr Yes. And that’s why we reached out. We’ve had the support from the National Fraternal Order of Police. They put out support on that. We’re working with the AFL-CIO. We’re calling on Senator Durbin to fix this problem. He brought this to Thompson. This is supposed to be the most union friendly administration. We haven’t seen it. We’re getting attacked on a daily basis. We’ve reached out to the White House. We’ve reached out to the labor secretary and ask them, you’re allowing this appointed director to do this, fix it.



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