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Missouri court sides with Corrections officers over $114M payment dispute

  

A Missouri appeals court sided with Department of Corrections (DOC) employees in a suit regarding overtime pay. Last year, a jury decided the thousands of current and former employees were owed nearly $114 million for pre- and post-shift work.  

The state appealed, but the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District sided with the employees Tuesday, denying each of the state’s points. 

Plaintiffs have argued they were not compensated for work required immediately before or after a shift. They have asked for a policy change as well as compensation for that time.

Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer said Corrections officers are “expected to act as a prison guard” while on the premises before and after a shift begins to prevent violence or escape attempts. 

“Given DOC’s undisputed knowledge of, and expectation for, the officers’ requirement to utilize their training to guard against prisoner fights and escape attempts during shift changes, we conclude that all preliminary and postliminary activities of the officers are not ‘pre’ or ‘post’ at all; instead, these shift change activities are ‘integral and indispensable’ to the officers’ ‘principal activities’ for which they are hired by DOC, that is, guarding against and protecting the public from prison riots and escape attempts,” Pfeiffer said. “According to Supreme Court precedent, these activities are, indeed, part of the officers’ ‘principal activities’ of employment by DOC and must be compensated pursuant to [the Fair Labor Standards Act].”

Additionally, Pfeiffer denied the state’s claim that the employees cannot “bring an FLSA claim ‘under the guise of’ a breach of contract claim.” He said the officers’ claim “is a breach of contract claim under state law, and it is not preempted by FLSA.” 

Judges Lisa White Hardwick and Thomas H. Newton concurred with the 17-page ruling. 

“These arguments that the Court of Appeals talked about in their opinion, these are points that the Corrections officers have been saying for decades,” attorney Gary Burger, who represents about 14,000 officers across the state, told The Missouri Times. “We would hope that now that the Court of Appeals has decided this, that the Department of Corrections will take responsibility and step up and pay its officers for guarding.” 

A DOC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Burger said “it’s been a long battle” for the Corrections employees. The suit was originally filed in 2012.

Gary Gross, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association (MOCOA), said Tuesday’s decision was a “positive” one for employees. MOCOA is named as a plaintiff in the suit.

“They should have been compensated all along,” Gross told The Missouri Times. “This is something that has been going on for years and years, and it’s finally being corrected.” 

The association also sued the department in June, alleging the state has denied representatives access to basic training classes to speak to new employees.