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Cook County Jail guards want $1 million for transfer to nearby cellblocks

When Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart closed Division 5 of the jail last year, he transferred 150 correctional officers to other cellblocks located between 600 and 1,250 feet away.

Now those guards are demanding up to $1 million in compensation because they say their transfer to those three nearby cellblocks violated their contract.

Teamsters Local 700, the union that represents the guards, has filed a grievance on their behalf. In a briefing to an arbitrator, Kevin Camden, a lawyer for the guards and the union, said the sheriff’s failure to pay the compensation amounted to a “blatant disregard” of the contract.

Dart is fighting the grievance.

“Their arguments are tiring and frustrating and continue to work against what we feel is the best interest of our staff and the taxpayers,” said Cara Smith, the senior policy adviser to Dart.

The Teamsters local president, Becky Strzechowski, blasted back, saying in a statement: “We are not going to apologize to anyone for fighting for our members and defending the middle class. There have been ongoing negotiations over this exact issue and what we are trying to secure during these negotiations has no monetary value. We are more than happy to share what we are negotiating over . . . if the sheriff agrees to it. Then we’ll see who is playing the smoke and mirrors game.”

The Teamsters say they have negotiated transfer agreements before that didn’t cost taxpayers any additional money but since no notice was given, the sheriff violated the contract.

“The union is not responsible for the sheriff’s bad management practices,” Strzechowski said.

The arbitrator, who heard arguments from both sides in January, has not ruled.

The grievance seeks an extra hour of compensatory time per day — a total of 33,000 hours — because the guards were reassigned to other cellblocks. They’re seeking compensation from January 2014 — when Division 5 closed — until November 2014 when they were allowed to bid for new assignments based on seniority, said Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Dart.

The compensatory time would cost taxpayers $990,000 plus about $1.5 million more to pay for replacement guards at a rate of time and a half, Pallasch said. The average salary of a correctional officer is $65,000, he said.

Smith said Division 5 was closed because the overall jail population is shrinking. About 8,700 people are housed in the jail, which is considered overcrowded when the population reaches 9,500, she said.

The jail population had reached a peak in 2001 under Sheriff Michael Sheahan when 10,900 prisoners were crammed into the sprawling complex on the Southwest Side, forcing 1,000 inmates to sleep on the floor. He even considered putting prisoners in tents. In recent years, more inmates have been placed on electronic monitoring, helping to curb the population. Fewer people are being arrested now than in the early 2000s, too.

Division 5 held about 445 inmates when it was closed. The facility, built in 1978, continues to serve as a processing center for defendants who post bond and are released from the jail. Shifting the 150 guards from Division 5 to the rest of the jail allowed the sheriff to more easily fill each post in the jail and reduce overtime costs, Smith said.

“It was a fiscally responsible move,” she said. “We owe it to the taxpayers and our employees to maximize our staffing.” Emptying the division of prisoners also allowed the sheriff to renovate the building, Smith said.

But in a briefing to arbitrator Brian Reynolds, the union accused Dart of ignoring a 2013 arbitrator’s award that required the sheriff to pay guards one extra hour per day for temporary transfers to other divisions.

Sheriff’s officials have countered that the 2013 award doesn’t apply to shutting down a division permanently. They argue that the award was intended to compensate guards when they are temporarily moved to other divisions to cope with sudden fluctuations in the populations of those facilities.

The union has noted the sheriff is paying to house hundreds of detainees in jails in other counties while closing divisions in the jail.

But sheriff’s officials say inmates are moved to other counties only when they pose an extreme security risk in the Cook County Jail. Those inmates include gang leaders and those who need to be in protective custody, they say. More than 100 inmates currently are being housed in other counties, Pallasch said.

Another cellblock, Division 4, was closed in July 2014, and the 80 guards who worked there were transferred to other facilities, too. The union hasn’t filed a grievance over that closing but could do so if the grievance over Division 5 is successful, Pallasch said. He estimated that could cost the sheriff’s office an additional $240,000 in compensatory time, plus $360,000 to pay for replacement guards.