The state's highest court has ruled that the Erie County sheriff's jail division can mingle sentenced and unsentenced inmates at the jails it runs, despite union contentions that it created an improper work practice.
The State Court of Appeals reversed a decision by the Public Employment Relations Board that had been upheld by lower courts. In those decisions, the jail division was told it had to bargain with the unions before changing the system that placed sentenced inmates at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden and unsentenced prisoners at the Holding Center in Buffalo.
Those classifications conformed to the labor jurisdictions of the bargaining units involved.
The Civil Service Employees Association represents the approximately 200 corrections officers charged with guarding sentenced inmates at the correctional facility.
The Teamsters union represents about 400 deputy sheriffs charged with guarding presentenced and pretrial detainees at the Holding Center and any quarters in Alden handling the overflow of Holding Center inmates.
After the lockups were merged under the sheriff's control in 2000, the state Commission of Correction looked at the county-run jails as one system and insisted on a unified standard in which prisoners were housed according to other factors -- their histories, for example, and whether they were violent or at risk of attack by others.
Jail officials were forced to abandon the "sentenced or unsentenced" standard in housing prisoners. The Teamsters and the CSEA then complained of an improper work practice, arguing the change had to be bargained. The case wound its way through the courts and led to the Court of Appeals decision made public Thursday.
"Unfortunately for the unions, we won at every court but the last court," said Robert Pyjas, the grievance chairman for CSEA Local 815 and a corrections lieutenant, who said he has been involved in the case from the beginning.
He said that the unions are still entitled to "impact bargaining," or negotiations focused on how they will be affected by the changes. But he said he did not think it would lead to declines in the number of members because both the correctional facility and holding center have issues with crowding.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said he has not yet assessed the full scope of the decision and what it allows him to do with staffing. However, Howard said the real savings will come if he can move to an "interchangeable work force," or being able to assign staff to any facility based on need rather than their bargaining unit.
The Teamsters represent 66 percent of the jail division's force and on Thursday they were guarding 954 unsentenced inmates, or 73 percent of the prisoners. The CSEA employees are guarding 350 sentenced inmates, or 27 percent of the population, Howard said.
"I'm looking to do what is the most economical for the taxpayers," he said, "and that means an interchangeable work force that can work at either facility as well as being able to move the inmates to either facility."