News Briefs: Archives 2011 & Earlier

Union Pushed Aside for Reform

A federal judge has let officials at Chicago’s juvenile detention center ignore part of a union contract in order to help them straighten the place out – a rare decision against one of the most powerful entities in juvenile justice.

“I have never heard of that taking place,” said Scott Peterson, who recently left his 10-year post as a federal program manager for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Earl Dunlap, a detention reform expert hired in August to overhaul the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, said the workers had too much control over the center.

The center has been operating under the authority of a federal judge as the result of a prolonged court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. Dunlap has struggled with two major problems that, according to an order issued last month by U.S. District Judge John Nordberg, leave the “health and safety of residents at risk”: 175 staff vacancies – which went up to 178 after Dunlap fired three more staffers for alleged child abuse – and too many experienced workers on the shifts where they are least needed.

The staff shortage is partly attributable to the county’s failure to pass its 2007 budget, which would include funding to hire 110 new employees at the center.

The shortage is also due to 700 sick days taken in a three-month period, along with some staffers applying a liberal use of medical leave, Dunlap said. Sixty staffers should be manning the center’s 30 pods on any shift, according to Dunlap, and “it is not unusual to have between 15 and 20 workers calling off” during the daytime shifts.

On the other hand, he said, the quiet night shifts are far better attended, and are staffed with the most experienced workers, even though they could be better used on the more intense day shifts.

“The inmates were left to run the asylum here,” Dunlap said. “And I’m not talking about the kids.”

Precedent?

Nordberg granted Dunlap permission to hire a private security firm to bolster the number of employees and allowed him to suspend a union contract clause that lets veteran employees choose their shifts. Many select night shifts, when residents are locked down and (for the most part) asleep.

Dunlap can now assign the most experienced employees to the most active shifts: morning and afternoon.

The union, Teamsters Local 714, did not protest hiring a security firm, but filed an objection against suspending the clause in the union contract. Efforts to connect with the union for comment were unsuccessful.

Asked if he expects tension between the private temporary staff and union employees, Dunlap said, “Absolutely.”

Observers in the juvenile justice field say the judge’s decision might be a precedent-setter in the battle between law enforcement unions and juvenile justice reformers.

“I think it is newsworthy, in that the union pushed back hard and lost,” said Marc Schindler, general counsel for the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services in Washington.

“There can be rigidity in collective bargaining agreements, which isn’t always a bad thing, because [workers’] rights need protecting,” Schindler said. “But that can slow reform.”

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