JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A Missouri appeals court has sided with a local judge's ruling that the state Department of Corrections owes corrections officers for unpaid wages.
The Western District Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a ruling out of Cole County against the Department of Corrections in a lawsuit first brought in 2012 by the Missouri Corrections Officers Association union. The union alleged the state department did not pay corrections officers for work performed before and after their scheduled shifts.
A circuit judge in Cole County granted the union's motion for a partial judgment in August 2018, and a jury then awarded the corrections officers nearly $114 million in damages. The Department of Corrections appealed the decision.
The lawsuit centered on shift changes and whether officers' activities during those changes should be compensated, even if those officers had not yet clocked in. The three-judge panel on the court of appeals found that those duties are part of the officers' jobs and are key to guarding against prison riots and escapes, which often happen during shift changes when prisons are at their most vulnerable.
The court also wrote that the pre- and post-shift work is not "extra work" and constitutes about 30 minutes per officer per day.
"Shift change is a great time for inmate escapes," said Gary Gross, the director of the Missouri Corrections Officer Association. He added that fights and other issues can occur before an officer gets to their "post," or immediately after they leave. "Officers are expected to be on their toes the entire time they’re there."
A Department of Corrections spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for the Missouri Attorney General's office, said Tuesday it did not have a comment on the ruling. The AGO is still considering an appeal to the Supreme Court, he said.
The ruling applies to more than 13,000 current and former corrections officers that worked from 2007-2018.
Gross said the DOC has not fixed the payment issue that sparked the initial lawsuit. Corrections officers are "still missing pay," he said.
Gross added that the payment issues, along with limited staffing, has in-part caused the spirits of DOC workers to plummet.
"Overall, morale in the department is not good," Gross said.