Politics & Government

State employee lawsuit alleges a 'sham' to cheat workers out of raises

The Pasquotank Correctional Institute state prison, near Elizabeth City, was the site of the deadliest prison escape attempt in North Carolina history in 2017 when four employees lost their lives.
The Pasquotank Correctional Institute state prison, near Elizabeth City, was the site of the deadliest prison escape attempt in North Carolina history in 2017 when four employees lost their lives. The Charlotte Observer

Supervisors and managers within state government have been fraudulently writing up their employees in an effort to stop them from getting raises, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The allegations focus on the Department of Public Safety, and specifically the state prison system.

The crux of the lawsuit is a claim that DPS officials ordered prison supervisors to issue unnecessary or even made-up written warnings to correctional officers and other prison workers, in an effort to stop them from getting raises. State legislators just approved an average 4 percent raise for prison employees that will go into effect in July, but these allegations concern a different set of raises from 2016.

The lawsuit also says prison officials used the faulty disciplinary methods to stop workers at the state's worst prisons from transferring to better ones, "to in effect indenture its employees" at dangerous or understaffed facilities.

A spokesman for the state prison system, Jerry Higgins, said the department supports its employees but does not comment on pending lawsuits.

"An ongoing priority of the Department of Public Safety has been and continues to be ensuring that our correctional officers and other employees are compensated appropriately for the difficult job they perform every day to keep North Carolinians safe," Higgins said.

Two prison employees, Carla Elkins and Michael Jackson, are suing. Leaders of the Police Benevolent Association, a law enforcement lobbying group that is helping with the lawsuit, say there ought to be many more employees adding their names to the lawsuit in the near future.

Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg, who has been one of the main legislators pushing for safer prisons and better conditions for prison employees, said he thinks people who were wronged will want to join the lawsuit because making their names and complaints public will help protect them from retaliation at work.

"That has been the primary factor for why people have not come forward — concern over retribution," Steinburg said Monday after a press conference hosted by the police union.

'A lot more is going to come out'

The lawsuit says that after the raises were approved but before they were put in place, upper management at DPS — which was at the time under the administration of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — instituted a new, written policy that no one with a recent written warning would be eligible for the new raises.

Out of a desire "to avoid or evade its obligation to pay the raises," the lawsuit claims, "DPS management directed prison management and command staff to issue written warnings to as many employees as possible prior to the effective date of the raises."

Michael Byrne, the Raleigh lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said written warnings are more serious than they sound.

Getting three can get you fired, he said, and they're also the only kind of discipline that state workers can't appeal to the court system. In other words, they're meant for serious issues and can have very real repercussions.

"Instead of using this tool to improve performance and improve discipline ... DPS appears to be using it to keep employees from getting a raise," Byrne said Monday.

John Midgette, the executive director of the Police Benevolent Association's North Carolina chapter, said that just before the 2016 raises were supposed to go into effect, his office received an abnormal number of complaints about unfair written warnings from its members who work in prisons.

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"For a lot of them we found they were flawed or completely false," Midgette said in an interview Monday. "So what we uncovered was there was a scheme."

Steinburg said he believes that once the lawsuit moves into the evidence-collecting discovery phase, it will uncover even more.

"A lot more is going to come out," he said. "And once it does, you're going to say 'Whoa.'"

Steinburg represents a rural, northeastern part of the state that's home to many jail and prison workers. Pasquotank Correctional Insitute, which was home to last year's deadly escape attempt that claimed the lives of four prison employees, is in his district. And just outside his district lines is Bertie Correctional Institute, where another correctional officer was killed by an inmate a few months before the Pasquotank attacks, and which has also been plagued by other reports of understaffing, assaults and guards skipping their shifts.

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Those five killings made 2017 the deadliest year in recent memory for North Carolina prison workers, and Steinburg has become one of the legislators leading a push for safer prisons and better working conditions inside them.

Stopping this in the future

The State Employees Association of North Carolina, which counts many prison employees among its numbers, has been hearing rumblings for some time about similar complaints.

Robert Broome, the SEANC executive director, said Monday his group has heard so many complaints that it lobbied the legislature to make sure that when the newest raises for state employees go into effect in July, from the new state budget that passed last month, the prison system can't use this strategy to prevent people from getting raises.

Specifically, the new budget law says that prison employees cannot "be denied an increase based upon a prior infraction or a pending disciplinary action," unless it's a major infraction, like for something that could have led to someone dying or being badly injured.

It's unclear if that new law would apply retroactively to the people who are suing now, but Broome says he hopes it would.

"SEANC took our members’ concerns directly to legislative leaders and they listened," Broome said.

DPS Secretary Erik Hooks N.C. DPS