News & Politics

Will new correction officers union contract boost recruitment for DOC?

The agency losing five officers to attrition for every new hire is offering raises and bonuses, although some of the promised perks in the deal have come into question.

An aerial photo of the Rikers Island jail complex.

An aerial photo of the Rikers Island jail complex. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Department of Correction Commissioner Lynell Maginley-Liddie at a Board of Correction meeting on May 14 admitted that the staffing crisis her agency has experienced since 2020 “keeps me up at night.” A City & State analysis of public records backs her concern, showing how recruitment efforts can’t keep up with the department’s loss of employees.

According to data published in The City Record, the DOC has hired 1,269 people and lost 3,698 over the last three years. Of those hired, 586 were uniformed personnel. Of the lost, 2,887 were uniformed personnel.  When compared, the agency has lost five uniformed employees for every new uniformed hire. At the same time, 1,451 of 5,938 uniformed personnel currently employed are eligible to retire in the next three years.

The DOC has reported that its staffing levels have been in a freefall since the pandemic. When asked for comment, a DOC spokesperson told City & State that the agency maintained a hiring freeze under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration that lasted from May 2019 to June 2021. The coronavirus pandemic also stopped all examinations for new Correction Officer jobs and “prevented the hiring, training, and deployment of whole classes of new recruits.”

The DOC has pending union contract terms, that if ratified, would be used to boost recruitment. These include a total of 18.78% in compound raises over five years amounting to almost $135 million, based on salary data through Jan. 31.  About $65 million more is included in the contract for incentives, longevity increases and bonuses. Officers in choice positions that don’t require interacting with people in custody would be guaranteed to keep those posts while working for the DOC. The union also secures a say in DOC policy changes.

“There was a critical need to invest in our workforce in order to recruit the best men and women to both take this job and to remain in our ranks,” Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio told City & State. “That's precisely why we negotiated the best contract for our union in over 15 years that provides not only significant raises for our members but also several retention bonuses aimed at keeping our officers with different years of service on the force, which no other uniformed union attained in this round of negotiations.”

City Council Member Sandy Nurse, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, was less inclined to promote retention and recruitment. She noted that the city’s jails have the largest staff to detainee ratio in the country and that the Rikers Island jail facility, set to close by 2027, will be replaced by five borough-based jails that will hold a reduced jail population of 3,300.  “The Department will need to reduce its staff headcount for this new system and should use attrition to achieve this goal, while implementing better staff management and deployment practices for the safety of staff and people in custody,” Nurse said in an email. 

Despite the impending switch to borough-based jails requiring fewer correction officers, recruitment efforts remain a high priority. Currently, the DOC has in place a multi-pronged approach that includes a $1.6 million advertising campaign launched in May that resulted in 1,495 people registered for the Correction Academy entrance exam.  By comparison, Maginley-Liddie said that “in our last class we had 2,266 people register and 774 of those passed the test,” during her remarks at the May 14 BOC meeting. “That will yield 84 people coming through the door.” 

Using the commissioner’s comments to make up the shortfall of 2,887 uniformed officers who have left the department over the past three years and the 1,451 who are anticipated to retire over the next three, the recruitment unit will have to sign up 114,957 people to take the exam in order to maintain current staffing levels through 2027.

The department  has three recruitment classes a year drawing a few hundred recruits for each class. It remains unclear whether the perks in the new union contract will stave-off the coming tidal wave of retirements.

The DOC is required by the Federal Court’s action plan in the class action case Nunez vs City of New York to end the practice of assigning privledged or “award posts” that don’t interface with people in custody, drawing away needed staff who are able to fulfill posts in the jails. It’s unclear how the new union contract, once approved, will sit with the federal judge presiding over the class action. At a recent City Council budget hearing the DOC claimed it had identified 844 such posts, but it is unclear if they will be eliminated given the new COBA contract guarantees. 

When asked for comment on the contract guarantees, the union referred City & State to the Office of Labor Relations, which negotiated the agreement. A spokesperson for the office did not respond to a reporter’s emails.

In a reply to the city’s motion to deny receivership in the Nunez federal class action lawsuit, the plaintiffs in the case filed a response last week that lambasts the new COBA contract as not only non-compliant with the court orders but as undermining them. “Inexplicably given the Action Plan’s requirements, in May 2024, the City offered the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (“COBA”) a contract that COBA describes as providing “guaranteed and contractually protected” awarded posts “for the first time ever,” the plaintiffs said in a court filing.

Attorneys for the Legal Aide Society who represent plaintiffs said in the same filing, “the Monitor was not informed the City was engaged in substantive negotiations, nor that it had made an offer regarding how job assignments are posted and filled … Five months into the new Commissioner’s tenure, the City offered COBA a labor agreement, which implicates this Court’s orders regarding staffing reform, without engaging with the Monitor or providing timely updates.”  

“This contract is proof-positive that COBA executives run the Department of Correction and have the power to sway DOC policy; shamefully, they only wield that power to protect their own rather than the membership at large or the detainees condemned to Rikers Island,” Sarena Townsend, former DOC Deputy Commissioner of Trial and Investigations told City & State in an email. "Receivership is desperately needed in order to bring order and reform to Rikers. No Commissioner has been, or will ever be, able to trump the power of the unions."