TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's prison system, still grappling with a chronic deficit, must give $600,000 in money or extra time off to hundreds of employees who were not paid for part of the time they were on duty.
The Department of Corrections has agreed with the U.S. Department of Labor to provide back pay or compensatory time to more than 700 employees at the state's largest and oldest prison, Union Correctional in Raiford.
Acting on complaints by two prison guards and the Teamsters Union, the Labor Department's Wage & Hour Division launched an investigation at Union in Raiford in 2011.
The complaints alleged that officers were not paid while they waited in line to be searched and pass through metal detectors, receive tear gas canisters and walk to their assigned post, a process that officers said can take 25 minutes at UCI.
The state's original position was that under federal law, employees' "principal activity" at work did not start until they arrived at their post, not when they received their chemical agents.
Current employees will get time off starting in July. Former employees will get checks, some for more than $3,000, for wage and hour law violations that occurred as far back as 2009.
As the confidential investigation dragged on, it was a mystery to rank-and-file employees such as Karen Bridwell of Lake Butler, who will receive one of the largest checks, for nearly $3,100.
"I'm glad to get it," said Bridwell, who retired as a correctional officer more than a year ago. "I was surprised. I didn't even know it was going on."
Bridwell worked in the prison system for 27 years and was earning $37,597 when she retired.
She said it was unfair for the state not to have paid her from the moment her hands touched a tear gas canister.
"The second you put your hands on state property, that's when the clock needs to run," Bridwell said.
In all, the state must pay former employees more than $234,000 and grant more than 23,000 hours of time off to current workers, the equivalent of 575 40-hour work weeks, at a time when the agency is also struggling to fill all shifts at its most dangerous prisons, including Union.
State workers won't get their checks or time off until the new fiscal year begins July 1, because the agency doesn't have the money in the current year's budget.
Corrections Secretary Mike Crews testified before a Senate committee in March that the prison system was $95 million in the red.
The prison system has been negotiating an end to the case with the federal government for months.