Correction Officer Recruit Trainee Pilot Demonstration Program Declared Void

 

On July 23, 2009, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division issued its opinion in the case of James Liik, et al v. New Jersey Department of Personnel/New Jersey Department of Corrections, Docket Number A-4121-06T2.

This particular opinion has widespread implications in regard to pay and seniority of thousands of New Jersey corrections officers presently employed with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

By way of background, in 1997, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey Department of Personnel created and implemented a pilot program which modified training procedures for corrections officer recruits. Prior to the implementation of the pilot program, candidates for employment with the Department of Corrections were hired as employees and assigned the rank of “correction officer recruit” during their period of training and completion of their working test period. During this time, corrections officer recruits received full salary and benefits available for this particular rank. Once the working test period associated with the position of corrections officer trainee was successfully completed, they were then promoted to the position of senior corrections officer. The pilot program eliminated this practice and those individuals seeking employment with the New Jersey Department of Corrections were designated as “students/trainees.”

As a result of this change, they were no longer considered employees of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, but instead received the lesser rank of corrections officer recruit/trainee during the 14-week training period. During this 14-week training period, instead of receiving the regular salary of a corrections officer recruit, they received a $300 weekly stipend. If a recruit trainee successfully completed the prescribed program of training, they then became “employees” of the New Jersey Department of Corrections and received the salary and benefits of a corrections officer recruit. Despite the fact that the program was to last for only a period of one year, the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Department of Personnel made the program permanent in 1999. A stipend of $300.00 that was to be paid to student trainees never increased over the following years and a significant financial burden and hardship was placed upon those individuals seeking employment with the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

 

Sometime in 2007, PBA 105, the Certified Collective Bargaining Unit for Senior Corrections Officers employed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, demanded that the Department of Personnel raise the stipend and terminate the pilot program which had been ongoing since 1997. The Department of Personnel and Department of Corrections refused their demand. As a result, an appeal was filed by the PBA challenging the Department of Corrections and Department of Personnel’s decision to continue the pilot program beyond the one year period of time.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division sided with PBA 105 and stated that the Civil Service Act provided that “pilot programs” may only be established and put into place for a period of one year. The Appellate Division went on to further state that if a pilot program was continued past the one year period of time, the Department of Personnel was required to issue rules and regulations allowing for such an extension under Title 4A of the New Jersey Administrative Code.

As a result of the Department carrying the program past the one year period of time, the Appellate Division declared that the continuation of the pilot program beyond the one year period of time without engaging in the rulemaking process as required by the New Jersey Administrative Procedure Act, declared the program null and void. While the Appellate Division’s decision is clear, we do not know what the New Jersey Department of Corrections or New Jersey Department of Personnel will do in regard to appealing the Appellate Court’s decision. Furthermore, we are also unsure as to whether or not the Department of Corrections will abide by the Appellate Court’s ruling and now treat those employees of the New Jersey Department of Corrections as corrections officer recruits and not recruit trainees.

Finally, a large issue looms on the horizon as to whether or not those individuals went through the corrections officer recruit training program as “students/trainees” will be entitled to back pay and benefits and a change in seniority date as a result of the ruling.

When more information is gathered from the unions as to how they will represent their members on this matter, we will update you accordingly.