'This is the worst it's ever been': Frustration grows among Bexar County Jail deputies
Sheriff says to hear of low morale is 'heartbreaking'
SAN ANTONIO – In interviews with the Defenders, multiple deputies inside the Bexar County Jail said dangerously long shifts, low pay and morale, and high turnover among jailers have pushed frustration levels near all-time highs.
One supervisor, who spoke on condition that they would not be identified because they are not authorized to speak with the media, concluded: "This is the worst it's ever been."
Following months of labor and other serious issues at the jail, Sheriff Javier Salazar on Wednesday sent a memo to the staff regarding mandatory overtime policies that had previously sparked controversy. The memo notified staffers that half of their pay for mandatory overtime during the current two-week pay period would be delayed until the end of August. The memo, the second sent by Salazar in a week following inquiries from the Defenders, said the delay is due to a "glitch in the payment of (mandatory overtime) pay."
Salazar wrote that the "glitch" occurred after "having used all of the hours granted us by Commissioners Court and then having been granted an additional lump of (mandatory overtime) hours at a later Commissioners Court meeting. This caused the payment to be unevenly distributed across the paychecks of August 15th and 30th."
The supervisor who spoke with KSAT said that the memo regarding the glitch was "total BS."
"Initially, (jail officials) said 'We are out of funds, there's no money to give,'" the supervisor said, adding that compensatory time is sometimes awarded in place of actual pay toward the end of a fiscal year due to a dwindling budget. "So when that rumor mill started at work, everyone started saying 'They're making us work two (extra) days, I'm just gonna call in, I'm not going to show up,' because we get no benefit out of it."
The supervisor said that they believe the staff may not have ever been paid for some of the mandatory overtime if not for pressure from detention staff and media.
Salazar, in an exclusive sit down interview with the Defenders on Friday, refuted that, saying his office intended to pay the deputies for their overtime hours all along.
"The rumor was, 'The money dried up and you're not getting paid.' That wasn't the case at all. That was never the case," he said in the interview, which will air at 5 p.m. Friday on KSAT 12.
Jeremy Payne, the president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County, said the pay delay is "not an issue." He said that the complaint is "a slap in the face" of Bexar County commissioners who have allocated more than they are contractually obligated to provide — $250,000 annually for deputies' overtime. That amount is determined by the Sheriff's Office's collective bargaining agreement with the county. Payne said that the commissioners have approved more than a million dollars during the 2018-19 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
But the supervisor who spoke to KSAT said that statements like Payne's ignore the vital role that the detention officers play.
"When they say, 'Oh, it's not a big deal. They should be grateful they're getting paid.' No, you should be grateful that these people are staying," the supervisor said. "Because if we don't, you're not going to have a jail to run because it's going to get shut down due to jail standards."
'You're not going to pay me unless I retire or get fired.'
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, law enforcement personnel may be given compensatory time instead of overtime pay. Those provided compensatory time are given 1 1/2 hours for every hour of overtime worked. Once an individual's bank of accrued compensatory time hits 480 hours, the agency must pay the individual overtime.
The detention officers who KSAT interviewed said they were given compensatory time, rather than pay, for the mandatory overtime they worked when Susan Pamerleau was Bexar County sheriff.
But it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, one detention officer said. Under Pamerleau, officers had only eight hours of mandatory overtime a week. Due to the retirement, resignation or termination of a large number of deputies, the need for a second overtime shift — referred to as forced overtime — has grown under Salazar. Now deputies are required to work as much as 16 overtime hours per week.
As such, the supervisor said, compensatory time is pointless for a short-staffed jail.
"You're giving me time I can't even utilize," the supervisor said, adding that vacation is often denied due to staffing shortages. "You're not going to pay me unless I retire or get fired."
The consequence for skipping out on forced or mandatory overtime is usually a suspension, the deputies said.
"You either deal with it or come sign your write-up," one deputy explained.
Salazar said that he recognizes the time sacrifice detention officers make and tries to make sure they get paid for their time.
"I've got to go back to commissioners court and ask for that money in chunks," Salazar said. "That's not a comfortable situation for me to have to go ask commissioners: 'I know that you guys gave me overtime money before. We've gone through it. Not because we wanted to. We managed it and we went through it. I need more of that money'. That's not a comfortable situation for me to be here as a leader. But you know what? I suck it up and do the job because I got deputies in there that are working a lot harder than I am right now."
Detention officers complain of dangerously long shifts
With high turnover among licensed jailers, detention staffers said their shifts are getting longer and longer. One supervisor said that deputies may sometimes work 19-hour shifts, and, unlike years prior, they may be asked to stay for another lengthy shift in the same week.
The second shift is referred to as forced overtime.
"So you may say, 'Alright, I think today I'm not going to have to stay because last week they made me stay,'" the supervisor said. "Then you try to make plans and then now, boom, 'We're going to keep you, sorry. You got to cancel whatever you did have planned because we're going to force you.'"
Salazar called the forced overtime process "less than ideal."
"I certainly see where this could be a morale-killer," Salazar said. "'I'm tired already. I've been working in a heightened, dynamic, frustrating environment around people that don't want to be where they are, and I'm already frustrated. I may get to go home. There is the door on the way out and now all of a sudden I'm being told, 'Not so fast. We do need you after all."
The detention officers KSAT spoke with said that there are rumors there may be a third overtime shift added to their workload due to turnover. Salazar agreed that that has been a persistent rumor among jail staff. With 141 vacancies, he said an additional shift is something that they're actively working to prevent.
"I am certainly afraid of that. I don't want to see come to that," Salazar said. "I don't think that we're that we're getting there. We're making every effort to get more people in the door and we're taking some maybe even what would be considered unorthodox methods to get more qualified applicants in the door."
Detention officers said that inmates are also very aware of the long hours they work.
"I've seen it before where (inmates) come up to deputies who are on hour 16," one deputy said. "They ask them, 'Oh are you working (mandatory overtime)?' They know what it is. They know about (forced overtime). They know they know and they definitely are tracking it."
"Imagine the stress level of people like me who work all these hours, with inmates who could be mental, violent, you name it — it happens," another detention officer said. "If we're not alert. It could cost us our life."
Officers say it wasn't always this way
Two officers who have been with the sheriff's office for nearly a decade said that there used to be a line to sign up for overtime. Now, they said, detention staff are paying each other anywhere between $80 and $100 to cover their shift.
Each of the deputies said the sheriff needs to improve the department's recruitment practices and consider paying a more competitive salary to alleviate pressure on current staff members.
"You know, there's a lot of people who would love to work," a supervisor said. "You just have to find people. And unfortunately, these dance videos aren't finding people."
Salazar said that seemingly "silly" things, including the lip sync challenge, their participation with the TV show "COPS" and Hunters Extravaganza have boosted the agency's platform for recruitment. He said that the agency has to be creative in recruitment efforts because the job itself isn't the most lucrative.
"I'm asking (detention officers) to operate in a toxic, toxic environment that I don't want them there anymore than they want to be there," Salazar said of the jail. "But I need them there. Bexar County needs them there. And so yeah, I'm putting them in a situation, I'm asking them to operate in a situation, that I don't want them to be there anymore than than they do. But it's it's part of what the job calls for."
The average salary of a detention officer in Bexar County is $39,600. The salary is less than Tarrant County's average of $41,390. Tarrant County maintains a jail population similar to Bexar County's.
"Do I lose sleep because I've got 141 openings and I'm not able to, in some instances, keep up with the attrition? Absolutely," Salazar said. "I lose sleep over that every night. I sleep maybe four hours a night, but that's a small price to pay.
"I can sleep soundly knowing that I'm bringing in the right kind of people into this agency that are not going to hurt us that are not going to embarrass us and put us on the 5 o'clock news. There are qualified people that want to be here and I want to make us all proud."
Salazar added that the 141 vacancies under his leadership come from a number of of factors. He pointed to the opening of the new Justice Intake and Assessment Annex in December 2018, as well as the resignation of deputies previously arrested. Among the gladly accepted resignations: jail supervisor Kailin Kruger, who pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated last month and Israel Gomez who was arrested for driving while intoxicated prior to Salazar taking office and was also suspended for an incident in which he failed to check on an inmate who committed suicide.
He said that the agency has also put more stringent hiring requirements in place that consider credit score and prior run-ins with the law.
Jail remains out of compliance
Earlier this year, the Bexar County Jail failed an annual inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for the first time in a decade. The February inspection report from TCJS listed nine violations, including inmate intake, release, classification, health services, supervision and sanitation.
The jail was found to be out of compliance during a second special inspection months later after a jailer was accused of forging inmate cell check logs and was subsequently criminally charged.
The facility has remained out of compliance since February. Two suicides and one suicide attempt have occured in the last month.
Still, Salazar maintains that Avery Walker, the third person to hold the title of jail administrator under Salazar, is the best person for the job.
"Chief Walker has been has been a strong leader in helping us to to get where we want to get as an organization. Could he be better at his job? Absolutely. Just like I could, just like anybody else that does a job could absolutely be better at their job," Salazar said. "But right now, he's the future of that jail. You know, am I happy with every single one of his decisions? No. But my 1.8 million bosses out on the streets of Bexar County aren't always happy with every decision that I make."
Each of the deputies said that the goal of bringing the jail back into compliance is a big one, but said that it'll need to start with improving working conditions for the backbone of the agency: Its employees.
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