'We win the vast majority'
DIXON – The union president at the state prison in Dixon says management should sit down with the union and come up with “reasonable” solutions.
“Instead, they say ‘no.’ Then grievances have to be sent outside the facility,” said Rick Ruthart, president of Local 817 of AFSCME.
Through a public records request, Sauk Valley Media recently received more than a dozen employee grievances that had been filed at the Dixon Correctional Center over the last couple of years.
Most had to do with overtime and work assignment issues. Nearly all were rejected by local prison management at the first and second levels.
After that, the grievances go to Springfield, Ruthart said. State law permits agencies to keep documents secret if they are related to the grievance process, so it’s hard to determine whether employees ultimately prevail.
“We win the vast majority,” Ruthart said. “We have a lot better outcome when it goes to the third level. It’s pretty much always a denial at the first and second levels.”
One the grievances in 2011 was from Ruthart himself. He contended management wasn’t giving him enough time as union president to prepare other employees’ grievances.
Local administrators denied his claim. They said it was unreasonable and impractical to allow Ruthart to work full time on complaints. They also said the union had no problem with the timely filing of grievances, as demonstrated by the number of them filed by Ruthart and other union stewards.
Ruthart, a correctional officer, said that at times, he needed to spend full time on investigating and preparing grievances.
“It’s not the union causing the issues; it’s management,” he said. “The amount of time they gave me to do the work wasn’t enough. The contract allows for us to investigate and process grievances on the clock.”
At the same time, Ruthart said, other union duties such as organizing and lobbying should be done off the clock.
Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Dixon prison administrators try to accommodate requests to work on grievances.
“Unfortunately, requests for time off to conduct union activities cannot always be facilitated based on operational needs,” she said in an email. “However, it is accommodated whenever it is feasible.”
Ruthart also said the Dixon prison is shortstaffed, a complaint heard at other facilities.
“They don’t allow the number of staff they need to run facilities,” he said. “They understaff us, which causes overtime.”
According to the state, the local prison has about 2,400 inmates and 524 state employees and 70 independent contractors.
Solano said recent facility closures have allowed the department to offer employees vacancies at existing prisons.
“This has helped to fill critical vacancies and bring staffing levels up at many facilities around the state,” Solano said in the email. “The department always ensures that there is the appropriate number of staff working on every shift, and the safety and security of staff and inmates remain the department’s top priority.”
State releases workers' grievances
DIXON – After nearly 2 years, the state prison system has unlocked records that the attorney general has always contended should be made public.
In May 2011, Dixon Correctional Center inmate Tiberius Mays asked to see grievances filed by prison workers.
The state Department of Corrections denied his request, but the state's attorney general determined that the agency should release the grievances, which are generally complaints that employees have with work rules or procedures.
In 2012, Sauk Valley Media filed a request for the same records, which the prison system also denied. SVM appealed.
In April, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Rogina said he could obtain the Department of Corrections' agreement to release the documents if corrections officials could redact the names of those who filed the grievances.
SVM agreed to the terms, and the agency emailed the documents shortly thereafter.
In denying the requests previously, the Department of Corrections had cited an exemption in the state Freedom of Information Act dealing with the adjudication of employee grievances.
Mays appealed the matter to the office of the public access counselor, a division of the Illinois attorney general, which determined the documents should be made public. The department ignored the attorney general's opinion.
In its denial on June 10, 2011, the department cited a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that, it said, allowed it to keep grievances secret. It was referring to an exemption in the law that covers "records relating to a public body's adjudication of employee grievances or disciplinary cases; however, this exemption shall not extend to the final outcome of cases in which discipline is imposed."
In a letter on Aug. 30, 2011, Rogina disagreed with the department's denial. He said records that were "generated independent of an adjudication such as an employee grievance or complaint against a public employee" would not fall under the exemption.
A year later, the department cited a contrary opinion from the attorney general in rejecting Sauk Valley Media's request. In that situation, Pam Brunton, a Chicago-area resident, had asked for information related to a dozen grievances filed by employees of the state Human Services Department.
Assistant Attorney General John Schmidt sided with Human Services, saying it had no obligation to release the requested records.
But Brunton's request was different from Mays'. She had wanted documents related to the adjudication, not the actual grievances.
The attorney general's opinions aren't binding.
Last year, some Dixon prison employees opposed Sauk Valley Media's request for the grievances. They noted that Mays, who is serving time for attempted murder and armed robbery, frequently criticized the Dixon prison.
"You should be ashamed of yourself and hide your face in this town," one correctional officer wrote on SVM's Facebook page. "Maybe your time would be better spent watching what goes on at City Hall.”
"You have no idea who this guy [Mays] is and what he really wants the information for," another officer wrote. "He has nothing to do all day but find ways to file and complain. We as taxpayers pay everything for this guy, including health care. ..."