Lawmakers propose reinstating collective bargaining for prison workers

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - State lawmakers are calling for a major change to what's commonly known as Act 10, the law that passed six years ago, limiting collective bargaining for most public employees, except police and firefighters.

Now, a new push is starting to add employees from the Department of Corrections to that list of workers exempted from collective bargaining over workplace safety.

It's one of seven proposals targeting corrections officers.

Target 2 Investigates found serious safety and security concerns among prison staff in our reports earlier this year.

When we talked with dozens of current and former corrections workers in the state's prisons nearly a year ago, Act 10 was one of the consistent arguments they cited as contributing to problems.

Those employees were telling us they felt a big shift in their safety and noticed fewer people wanting to work in prisons after that collective bargaining law took effect.

"First of all, we want to make it safer, and since 2011, it seems like everything has gone in the wrong direction," says Senator Dave Hansen, a democrat from Green Bay. "You can argue whether or not the wages were a factor, but workplace safety is key, and to have them at the table, knowing what's going on."

The proposal, Senate Bill 589, introduced last week by two dozen Senate and Assembly Democrats, calls for DOC employees to collectively bargain over workplace safety.

Sen. Hansen says he continues hearing complaints from current and former employees, pointing to a growing number of assaults or attacks on prison staff.

According to a DOC report published earlier this year, the number of completed assaults on staff increased from 245 in fiscal year 2014 to 315 assaults in FY2016.

"Good people going in there should know that they're safe, and we've got to do all we can," he says. "Right now, we're concerned that some of the people coming in are not well trained. We want to get rid of the overtime."

Overtime is part of six more bills being proposed, all specifically impacting corrections employees.

One bill limits overtime to no more than two consecutive shifts. Assembly Bill 708

Another would require five first responders, in addition to corrections officers, be on duty. Assembly Bill 704

A third mandates four weeks of on-the-job training. Assembly Bill 703

"At the core of it is just restoring respect for our correctional officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe," says Rep. Eric Genrich, a Democrat from Green Bay.

In a statement, the DOC acknowledges corrections jobs as 'challenging,' but says it actively seeks input from staff and considers that in decision-making.

The department says it also conducts comprehensive training for new hires.

Lawmakers tell us they're concerned about recruitment and fewer people wanting careers in corrections.

The DOC tells us, as of this week, there are 48 full-time-equivalent vacancies for corrections officers or sergeants at Green Bay Correctional alone. That calculates to about 21 percent of those positions at GBCI currently open.

All these bills were just proposed and are now in committee, but right now they only have support from Democrats. Sen. Hansen hopes that changes.

We reached out to the governor's office for comment, but as of the time of publishing we have not heard back.

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