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In the midst of contract negotiations with Lebanon County, a union representative for the county prison correctional officers is expressing grave concerns for working conditions at the facility.

At the April 7 County Commissioners’ meeting, Tara Wilson of Harrisburg-based AFSCME District Council 89 made public comments on behalf of the COs, which she said only had 12 employees overseeing 300 inmates. (Multiple messages left for Wilson by phone for further comments and clarification on her public comments at the meeting were not returned.) 

Before knowing that she was a union rep, Chairman Robert Phillips interrupted Wilson, who said she had been at the prison prior to the meeting, to ask whether she wanted to give that much detail. Wilson had said she was a rep for the prison guards when she introduced herself but did not initially introduce herself as a union spokesperson.

”I think that, at any moment, this is a great safety concern for the citizens of Lebanon County,” said Wilson during her comments. “I think we’re in a situation over there, that safety has become such an issue that people are leaving left and right. We’re at half complement of where we usually are. People are retiring and resigning every day. You’re going to be in a situation very shortly where you’re not going to be able to open every day. … There’s not going to be enough people to supervise the inmates over there.”

Wilson then said the union is in the middle of negotiations with the county and that she came to the meeting to ask that commissioners “take concern for the citizens of Lebanon County and use some of the ARPA to address the situation.”

(The American Rescue Plan Act provided federal funding to government entities as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lebanon County had received approximately $27 million.)

Although he was not at the meeting, county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth told LebTown in a follow-up phone call that he watched a video of the meeting, and said that ARPA funds would only be a one-time fix and not a predictable stream of revenue. 

“I am not going to comment on the number of COs on duty at the prison,” Wolgemuth said. “There are security ramifications to speaking about operations at the jail. I will let her put into context as to what she meant by the numbers, and I won’t speak to the internal operations as it pertains to the prison. She has to be the one to explain her comments.” 

After spelling out a number of concerns including the fact that the county prison is short staffed, Wilson noted that the issue is not unique to Lebanon County. 

“This is happening all over the commonwealth,” said Wilson. “The corrections officers worked all through COVID and put their lives on the line. We went through all of the lockdowns, we did everything we were supposed to. And you have a group left that are very loyal employees that have been there for over 20 years.”

Saying she was there on behalf of those loyal employees, Wilson implored the commissioners to go back to the table and have a real conversation about how to recruit and retain workers in Lebanon County.

Following her comments and still without knowing she was there as a union representative, Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz thanked Wilson for being brave enough to speak publicly.

“Please know that we are taking every step we can, and consulting, and trying to make things right,” Litz said. “We just ask for your help and be patient just a little bit longer, we are working on things.”

Phillips then told Wilson that the county has an arbitration hearing scheduled for the end of April with union representatives. Wolgemuth, who declined to comment on the current contract negotiations, said the previous four-year contract, which began Jan. 1, 2018, had expired on Dec. 31, 2021. He said negotiations for a new contract began mid-2021.

Following Litz’s statement, Phillips told Wilson the county had met several times to try and settle this issue, and when he added that she had talked with the union, Wilson replied: “I am the union.”

After Phillips knew she worked for the union, he said, “So you are coming to us publicly” and Wilson replied that she had called and was told she would not be granted a private meeting and that prompted her to speak publicly.

Phillips was reluctant to make additional comments to ensure that there would be no violation of the union contract, and Wilson responded that union negotiators “are very open to coming back to the table before that arbitration and getting this resolved.”

“I don’t know what else to say,” said Wilson “I mean, we are at — we are spending a significant amount of money on overtime. These people are begging for help, they are begging for breaks.”

Wolgemuth said he’s not sure why she would make public comments to the commissioners to have a meeting when contracts for the county’s six unions are negotiated by the county’s labor attorney. (The six professions with union representation include the correctional officers, county detectives, court-related professionals, court-related non-professionals, and 911 dispatchers.)

As of last week, the county has 38 COs on staff of a possible 75 positions. Additionally, the county can employ five corporals and sergeants each and 15 casual COs. While the corporal and sergeant positions are at full complement, the county currently only has three casual positions of the fifteen filled. Wolgemuth noted that the casual COs positions are non-union jobs.

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James Mentzer

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...