As reported by nj.com, the state must pay thousands of corrections officers back pay for their participation in a pilot program that last 10 years beyond its experimental phase, a Superior Court judge ruled. If the ruling is allowed to stand, the state will be responsible for millions of dollars in compensation for new corrections officers whom the court said worked under a job title that did not officially exist from 1999 to 2009 during a 14-week training period.
The dispute centers on a program the state began in January 1998 establishing the pay and training for newly hired corrections employees. Previously, new hires, who were classified as corrections officer recruits, were trained for 14 weeks while they worked at correctional facilities for a regular salary. Under the pilot program, new hires worked under the title student/trainee. The first 12 weeks of training took place at the State Corrections Officer Training Academy in Sea Girt, and the final two weeks were held at a correctional facility. During that 14-week period, they earned a stipend of no more than $300 a week. That student/trainee title was allowed to exist for 10 years even though the state Department of Personnel did not certify it until 2009.
The corrections officers union, Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, five corrections officers sued in 2009, contending that as a pilot program, that arrangement was only valid for a year and after that the state was required to adopt a rule making the arrangement permanent. However, the state claimed it did not have to adopt the pilot program to make it legal beyond its first year. An appellate court panel in 2009 disagreed and permitted the case to continue.
On July 12, Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd ruled the state had breached its implied contract with the union by not formally adopting the program and had to pay up. In a subsequent ruling issued Friday, Hurd said the case could be handled as a class action so that the corrections officers do not have to sue individually.
The pay differential could be from a couple hundred to several hundred per officer because the pay for new hires had increased over the past decade. In 2004, for example, the new hires earned the $300 weekly stipend during those 14 weeks when they should have been paid $766 a week. About 4,300 corrections officers are entitled to the back pay.
Local 105 President Trent Norman said he hopes to see the case resolved soon. “The judge made a wise decision,” he said. “I hope we will prevail a little further. The department (of corrections) has been dealing with this for some time.”