August 21. 2017 12:40PM

Contract impasse with prison guards goes to fact-finding

CONCORD -- The union representing New Hampshire prison guards, Teamsters Local 633, on Monday reiterated its claim that the state prison system is "in deep crisis" due to a shortage of correctional officers, as fact-finding gets under way in the labor dispute.

The union representing more than 380 correctional officers launched a campaign called "Safe Prisons, Safe New Hampshire" in June to bring attention to stalled contract negotiations with the state.

Negotiators for the union and the state are about to begin meeting with an appointed fact-finder. Negotiations stalled in the spring and the officers' contract expired June 30.

Sununu says the Teamsters rejected what amounted to a 10 percent pay raise, although the union disputes that claim.

"Teamsters always respect the process involved in negotiating and we are participating as required and expected in this part of the process," said Jeffrey Padellaro, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 633. "But there is no getting around that New Hampshire has a major prison safety problem."

Paellaro said low staffing levels mean corrections officers are routinely forced to work three to four 16-hour shifts per week.

Approximately 50 percent of the posts at the state prison in Concord are filled by correctional officers working overtime, he said.

"This is not the type of job that can effectively and safely executed when suffering from fatigue as a result of multiple overtime shifts back-to-back without the ability to rest for a minimum of eight hours," he said. "Additionally, the shortage means New Hampshire prisons have to curtail visits and other activities that are essential safety tools to manage inmates."

The shortage of corrections officers has also delayed the opening of the new women's prison in Concord, which is nearly completed and ready for occupancy -- but may not open for another year.

The Department of Corrections will ask the Executive Council on Wednesday to approve another 12-month lease with Hillsborough County for continued use of the former county jail at Goffstown, from June 30, 2017, to June 30, 2018, at a cost to the state of nearly $2.5 million.

Fighting for farmers

During the lengthy debate over a $1 million bailout for the state’s ailing dairy industry in the past legislative session, dairy farmers often cited USDA insurance programs and regulations that favored large farms in the Midwest over their smaller New England counterparts.

On Wednesday, the state’s Congressional delegation joined other members of Congress in pressing the USDA to make some changes.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, along with Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers from New England in urging Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to improve the safety net for the region’s dairy farmers.

The letter urged the Agriculture Department to make milk an eligible commodity under the Federal Crop Insurance Program – which successfully insures farmers across the country for hundreds of different kinds of crops – and to work with USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) to develop new insurance products for better suited to all types of dairy producers.

“We urge you to utilize existing authorities to expand and enhance insurance products for dairy farmers. We request that RMA work with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to determine milk as a distinct agricultural commodity eligible for Federal Crop Insurance coverage. Additionally, we would urge the RMA to use existing authorities to develop additional dairy insurance products,” the letter states.

Wholesale milk prices have dropped almost 40 percent in the last few years, and dairy farmers in New England are struggling to stay afloat. After a severe drought last year compounded their problems, several wholesale dairy farms in New Hampshire went out of business, triggering the months-long effort to support the industry with a $1 million fund from the state’s 2016-2017 budget surplus.