MADISON, Wis. — In the year before he retired, correctional officer Bradley Thiede worked 95 hours a week on average, allowing him to reap nearly $175,000 last year — more than the governor, more than head of the state corrections department and more than the warden who runs his prison.
The long hours — more than 13½ hours seven days a week or almost 20 hours a day in a five-day workweek — nearly tripled his base pay and boosted his pension.
He wasn’t the only one to rack up overtime. Seven other Wisconsin state employees worked more than 80 hours a week on average last year, according to state data. They are some of the 540 state workers who made more than $20,000 in overtime last year.
Wisconsin officials attribute the high overtime amounts to a low unemployment rate that has made it hard to hire workers at prisons and health-care facilities that need to be staffed around the clock.
“It’s bad for their staff and it’s bad for prison conditions,” said Vincent Schiraldi, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work who previously oversaw juvenile corrections for the District of Columbia and probation for New York City.
Jon Anderson, a Madison employment lawyer, said he was worried about whether employees could safely oversee inmates or patients when they put in exceedingly long hours.
“At the end of the day, it becomes a safety issue,” he said. “The question is are they at their best when they’re doing that? Are they getting adequately refreshed in order to work what I think we’d (all) agree is a difficult job?”
State officials said they check on workers to make sure they are fit for their shifts and send them home if they are not.
The state Department of Corrections spent a record $42 million on overtime last year as it wrestled with a years-long worker shortage. As of April, 1 in 5 jobs were unfilled at some state prisons and officers routinely are forced to cover those shifts.
Some workers volunteer for even more overtime.
By working so much in his last year at Redgranite Correctional Institution in Redgranite, about 70 miles northeast of Madison, Thiede significantly increased the average salary used to determine pension payments he will receive for the rest of his life. His 2017 pay was more than twice as much as the $80,000 he made in 2016 and $72,000 he made in 2015.
Thiede started working for the state in 1986 and retired in April. He did not respond to messages from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
He logged 4,955.5 hours last year, more than twice as much as a typical worker. About a quarter of those hours were for night shifts.
In addition, he claimed five weeks of vacation and other leave time.
He made $26 an hour on his regular shifts and $39 an hour during his overtime shifts. He made about $61,000 in base pay and nearly $114,000 in overtime.
Also putting in large amounts of overtime in 2017 were these state workers:
- Bradley Frisch, a sergeant at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage who made more than $169,000 and worked 82.4 hours a week on average;
- Kevin Streekstra, a sergeant at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun who made more than $168,000 and worked 87.5 hours a week on average;
- Sook Bae, a nurse clinician at Central Wisconsin Center in Madison who made nearly $216,000 and worked 81.7 hours a week on average.
All three made more than $100,000 in overtime alone in 2017, according to payroll data released under the state’s open records law and analyzed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Streekstra and Bae did not respond to emails. Contact information could not be found for Frisch, who retired in January.
In all, 35 workers, the vast majority of them at the Department of Corrections, pulled in more than $50,000 in overtime alone in 2017.
► May 2017: Overtime bill allows employers to offer time off instead of cash
► April 2016: Overtime restrictions thrust nurses into guard duty at federal prisons
Overtime at the Department of Corrections has gone up 31% — more than twice the rate of inflation — since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011. Overtime costs jumped from $32.2 million in 2010, the year before Walker took office, to $42.4 million last year.
To combat the rising overtime, the department is trying to fill jobs by offering $2,000 signing bonuses and other incentives at some prisons. Starting pay for officers will rise to $16.65 an hour by January, or 9.5% more than what it was in 2016.
“DOC is not alone in experiencing challenges in recruiting and retaining employees,” department spokesman Tristan Cook said in an emailed statement. “Due to Wisconsin’s historically low unemployment rate and historically high employment, many employers, both public and private, are experiencing difficulty hiring staff.”
► August 2015: Taxpayers on hook for millions in overtime after prison escape
► March 2014: Obama orders overtime rule changes
Workers see it differently, said spokesman Michael Horecki of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said the state would be able to hire and retain more workers if it raised pay and gave workers more say in their jobs by repealing Act 10, the 2011 law that all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public workers.
People like Thiede are outliers, and most prison employees are made to work more hours than they want, Horecki said. Workers volunteer for some overtime shifts, but they say they do so because if they don’t their bosses will force them to work extra shifts with little warning.
The long hours mean workers miss band concerts, birthday parties and other events for their children, Horecki said. “At the end of the day, there’s a human cost to this,” he said.