MADISON, Wis. -- Corrections officers sued the state this week alleging they are owed millions of dollars in back pay because of a 2012 policy that prevents them from being compensated for perhaps five minutes of work a day.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Dane County Circuit Court, comes less than a month after a state agency found that the policy led the department to underpay a Redgranite Correctional Institution officer. That order would lead to about $1,000 of back pay for the employee, Paul Mertz, but the decision is under administrative appeal by the department.
Building off Mertz's initial victory, officers at 10 other institutions filed their lawsuit. They are asking Judge Rhonda Lanford to declare the case a class action in the hope of securing back pay for more than 3,000 current and former officers.
In early 2012, the department set a policy that said officers would not get paid until they were stationed at their assigned posts. They are not compensated for duties they perform before then, which include going through security screenings, receiving fitness for duty checks and checking out equipment.
The department's conduct "constitutes continuing, willful violations of Wisconsin's law requiring the payment of overtime and wages for all hours worked," the officers wrote in their lawsuit.
Joy Staab, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, had no comment Wednesday.
If the suit succeeds, the state would have to pay the officers millions of dollars. Much of the lost time would have to be paid at time-and-a-half because the officers worked 40 or more hours in those weeks. Additionally, the state could have to pay the officers' attorneys fees and damages equivalent to half the amount of the unpaid wages.
How much officers work without pay depends on their job duties and the layout of the prisons where they work, according to officers. Some work a few minutes a day without receiving pay, while others work significantly longer periods without pay.
The lawsuit, first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, is being funded by the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, a newly formed union that recently broke away from a large unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The lawsuit noted that the wage dispute cannot be resolved using collective bargaining because of a law restricting union negotiations. Under that law, known as Act 10, the correctional officers union can bargain for raises -- up to the rate of inflation -- but nothing else.
After the policy was enacted, Mertz filed his complaint with the state Labor Standards Bureau contending he was being shorted pay. The bureau last month ruled Mertz had been denied pay in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and ordered the department to pay him back pay equivalent to 35 minutes of work a week. It also ordered the department to change how it pays all Redgranite officers starting next week.
The department has filed an administrative appeal. That case continues as the new one seeks back pay for all the other officers who work for the state.
The officers who filed suit Tuesday work at the Columbia, Dodge, Fox Lake, Jackson, Kettle Moraine, New Lisbon, Racine, Taycheedah, Waupun and Winnebago correctional institutions.
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