Jail staff revolt

A shift change at Whitehorse Correctional Centre threatens to incarcerate workers, say union leaders. This is the main concern of jail staff, who…

A shift change at Whitehorse Correctional Centre threatens to incarcerate workers, say union leaders.

This is the main concern of jail staff, who took to the streets Friday afternoon to protest changes to their work hours.

The group of around 50 people, who gathered before the government’s main building, said the change in shift patterns and work hours is both unsafe and stressful.

“There are some serious risk factors there. They understaff the teams and expect you to meet their obligations,” said Art Birss, vice-president of the corrections officers’ union.

 “It’s not only dangerous for staff, it’s dangerous for inmates as well.”

In a particularly serious situation, jail guards may not be able to step in if there are too few on hand, he noted.

“(Management) want the staff to become dysfunctional so there’s no repercussions and feedback from staff towards (them) on how they should operate the centre,” he said.

Corrections officers used to work 12-hour shifts – either from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

They would be scheduled four nights or days in a row, followed by four days off.

This pattern gave workers plenty of time to recover from night shifts and from the natural stress that exists in the job, said Kyle Keenan, president of the corrections officers’ union.

“We don’t work in a normal office building, we work in a very dysfunctional place,” he said.

The Justice department has reverted back to the original schedule outlined in the collective agreement.

This means returning to eight-hour shifts from 12-hours. And adopting a schedule of seven days on, four days off, followed by seven days on and three days off.

While the government offered the union several scheduling options, the union refused them, said Sandy Bryce, director of Community and Correctional Services.

Although the union did present its own plan, it didn’t fit the government’s requirements, she added.

“We had to revert back to the original agreement,” she said.

“This is happening all across the country, that hours of work are being looked at.”

The scheduling change results from a failure to address staffing issues at the jail, according to Yukon Employees’ Union spokesperson Brent Mekelburg.

“This whole scheduling fiasco is nothing more than a ruthless tool used by management in order to mandate overtime shifts, to address the need of self-inflicted institutionalized under-staffing,” he said to the crowd.

“It’s a lot easier to make someone turn around and stay an additional shift if that shift is eight hours instead of 12.”

While 12-hour shifts were agreed to on a trial basis, that period ended Dec. 31, said Bryce in an interview this morning.

People will always call in sick or cancel shifts, regardless of whether staff is working eight or 12 hours, she said.

Being asked to work a second 12-hour shift is only more exhausting for corrections officers.

Management wanted to keep the 12-hour shift on a trial basis pending the construction of a new jail, said Yukon Employees’ Union past-president Dave Hobbis.

“While there’s no new facility and there’s no new programming, the employer still doesn’t have a clue what their staffing levels need to be,” he said from the sidewalk in front of the legislature.

“We even had one senior member of management in the department of Justice identify that to put corrections officers back on seven-three, seven-four would be cruel and unusual punishment.”

Management is changing the shifts because 12 hours was too long, said Bryce.

“What we’re seeing is that when people work in such a stressful environment for 12 hours at a time they become fatigued. We have to think about the inmate and the kind of energy level that needs to be given in that kind of work,” she said.

“And how to you keep the staff fresh and able to do their job with the energy and health that they need?”

A number of other charges were made against the government, including misusing auxiliary employees, failing to schedule rest and meal breaks for staff and causing them undue stress.

Some auxiliary workers have been at the jail for eight to 10 years without being offered full-time hours or benefits, said Mekelburg.

While a strong auxiliary staff is needed to run the jail on a 24-hour basis, some of those positions will be made permanent, said Bryce.

At the rally, New Democrat Steve Cardiff told picketers the Yukon Party has taken advantage of its collective agreement with corrections officers to impose unfair changes.

“This government has consistently shown a lack of respect for the rights of workers to bargain collectively,” said Cardiff.

What is the next step for jail staff?

“We’re not asking people to go on strike,” Mekelburg said.

“But (management) deals with it now or later.”