A new staffing analysis of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) shows that federal medical protections now prevent 60% of corrections officers from working overtime, which amounts to more than quadruple the share of officers who secured those protections in 2018. This increase comes as worker shortages require the County’s two adult jails to rely on mandatory overtime shifts to keep the facilities staffed. Openpayrolls showed one correction officer at the downtown jail working more than 1,000 hours of overtime in 2022.

According to the analysis, high levels of leave-taking and retention issues account for the “crisis-level [staffing] shortfalls” at the County’s two adult jails. The jails have what amounts to a 29% job vacancy rate due to the number of actual open positions combined with the number of officers restricted to “light duty.”

With only 388 officers, the DAJD must keep workers on after their scheduled shifts, sometimes for up to 16 hours for multiple days, said Dennis Folk, president of the King County Corrections Guild. After a sustained period of working that many hours, a lot of these officers end up talking to their doctor, Folk said. 

With a doctor’s note, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) exempts workers with medical conditions from mandatory overtime requirements. That leaves the 40% of correctional officers who don’t have an FMLA certification to work a disproportionate number of the more than 157,000 overtime hours officers collectively worked in 2022. The staffing analysis, which CGL companies completed in July of 2023, said the small pool of employees able to perform overtime increases staff burnout and the potential for other officers to develop “their own health issues.”

Back in 2018, when just 15% of officers had an FMLA certification, the county still blamed those officers for putting a strain on others, according to a 2019 article from the Seattle Times. But the lack of adequate staffing–not the FMLA–caused so many officers to need an exemption, Folk argued. The staffing report showed a net loss of 87 officers between 2020 and 2022. 

To try to retain and recruit more officers, at the end of 2022 the King County Council approved almost $12 million in financial incentives. Folk said he appreciated the money, but he’d still like to see more of an effort to recruit people who live outside of Washington. The report did note that 2023 new staff hires appear on pace to surpass pre-pandemic levels, and the report gave DAJD credit for the recruitment work it’s been doing, especially given the tough environment right now, said Noah Haglund, a spokesperson for the department. 

As for why significantly more corrections officers submitted FMLA paperwork in 2022 compared to 2018, Haglund said he couldn't offer comment due to the "privately protected" nature of the medical information contained in the application. "We are taking every step to ensure that we are complying with provisions in federal law," he added.