PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The number of Rhode Island state workers who made $100,000 or more jumped 21% from 2016 to 2018, according to a Target 12 review of payroll data.
Figures show 2,336 state workers took home six-figures in 2018, up from 1,936 in 2016 and 1,453 in 2014. Those employees accounted for nearly $304 million in state spending, up from almost $248 million in 2016 – a 23% increase. (The payroll figures don’t include the cost of benefits like health care or payments into the retirement system.)
R.I. House Minority Leader Blake Filippi said the increasing number of six-figure salaries reinforces his case for a state inspector general.
“We haven’t saved money and I don’t think the product the government is producing has gotten any better,” Filippi said. “I think we need to reassess the way we look at the way we do business in this state … to really go into these departments and find out whether we’re getting our money’s worth.”
Brenna McCabe, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Administration (DOA), argued that “even without adjusting for inflation, there are a number of reasons that the state payroll goes up over time.”
“As we continue to modernize government to meet the demands of citizens, we have to adapt our archaic personnel system to better attract and retain talent or risk losing out to other states or the private sector, which may have more competitive packages,” McCabe said in an email. “Public service is important, and we need – now more than ever – hard-working people who will stay and make a real difference in how government interacts with people.”
McCabe pointed to the Division of Information Technology as an example, citing that as a specialty where compensation needs to be competitive in order to “attract expertise.”
The state also signed off on several collective bargaining agreements that included cost-of-living increases in recent years, McCabe said.
The largest spike in state workers making six-figures was with correctional officers at the Adult Correctional Institution, the payroll data showed.
In all, 499 correctional officers made $100,000 or more in 2018, representing 52% of the staff.
The primary driver was overtime pay, with 23 correctional officers making more than $100,000 in overtime alone. Four officers made between $190,000 and $204,000 in overtime alone.
Richard Ferruccio, the president of the correctional officers’ union, said there was a hiring freeze for three years because the state was being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice over its testing process for hiring, which thinned the ranks and spiked overtime.
“We didn’t run a class for a number of years so we’ve fallen behind,” Ferruccio said, estimating the ACI loses between 40 and 50 officers a year. “When you don’t run a class for a number of years you can see how easily it is to get into a dangerous situation and that’s kind of what happened.”
According to the DOA, there were 964 correctional officers in 2018, down from 993 in 2011.
Ferruccio said correctional officers were frequently ordered into forced overtime because the prison was so shorthanded.
“You can’t leave,” Ferruccio said. “That happened with some staff up to 50 times.”
The state and the federal governments eventually settled the lawsuit and roughly 70 new correctional officers started in July. Both Ferruccio and McCabe predicted overtime for correctional officers would shrink in 2019.
“As we replenish our ranks and improve facilities layouts through our proposed capital improvement projects, we anticipate easing some of that overtime burden,” McCabe said.
Ferruccio admitted, however, that overtime can be addicting for some officers and those on the high end choose to take extra shifts. Correctional officers can work up to four shifts in a row – or 32 hours straight – before they are required to go home. Officers receive time-and-a-half for their first overtime shift, then it’s double time for any work beyond 16 hours.
Ferruccio said officers are not allowed to sleep during their shifts. Asked if working 32 hours straight puts safety at risk, he said he couldn’t think of a time where something happened because an officer was too tired. But he admitted working four shifts in a row “is a young man’s game.”
“If you’re working that kind of overtime it wears you down,” he said. “There is a select group of people – a small percentage – that will work anywhere.”
He also said for every officer who takes voluntary overtime, it may prevent another staffer from being forced to work extra shifts.
Filippi, the House GOP leader, expressed concern over extreme overtime.
“I think we have to rely on the experts, but I don’t know how someone can work 32 hours straight and there not be an impact on public safety,” Filippi said. “I think an inspector general could have gone into the prisons three years ago and reported to us that there are these overtime issues.”