Law enforcement and correctional officers likely recall responding “yes” to the following two questions on their job application and again during the oral interview:
- Are you willing to work any shift?
- Are you willing to work overtime?
Most applicants know full well that by answering “yes” to both questions, they are likely increasing their chances of moving forward in the hiring process. However, many applicants do not realize that working overtime may lead to a host of administrative, financial, physical and psychological troubles down the road.
In reality, working overtime is not actually voluntary – many agencies mandate overtime from its officers. Law enforcement and correctional agencies have the notorious reputation of mandating overtime at a significantly higher rate than most other occupations. If officers refuse to work mandated overtime, they often face consequences including disciplinary action (regardless of the reason for the refusal) and the possibility of losing their job.
As a former prison administrator, I understand and can sincerely appreciate the dire need to ensure that correctional institutions are adequately staffed; however, the current practice of mandating overtime does far more harm than good, especially in the long-term.
The Toll of Mandatory Overtime
Mandatory overtime only adds to an already overworked, burned out and stressed-out workforce. Stress not only impacts the individual officer, but can, and most likely will, have a detrimental impact on the officer’s personal and professional relationships.
Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
One of the most significant and damaging elements of mandatory overtime is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can contribute to a host of physical, cognitive, and emotional issues. An overtired, sleep-deprived officer is more likely to make mistakes and become complacent. Incidents of excessive force are also more likely to stem from an irritable, short-tempered officer lacking what all humans need: sleep.
An article within the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found that being awake for 19 hours can produce impairments that are comparable to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05 percent. Being sleep-deprived for 24 hours is comparable to having a BAC of roughly .10 percent, which means that in just five hours, the cognitive impact on the officer’s ability to do his/her job nearly doubles. (It should be noted that it is a crime to drive with a BAC of .08 percent or above.)
Most important, without enough rest, officers are not as vigilant or alert, which jeopardizes their own safety as well as the safety of those around them. In a correctional setting, officers are duty-bound to protect the safety and security of prisoners, visitors, their coworkers, and the community at-large, but being sleep deprived can severely impact their ability to do so.
In addition to the psychological and physical concerns of mandatory overtime, it also carries a hefty financial burden. Taxpayers must, through hard-earned tax dollars, pay for overtime costs especially if the overtime expenditures exceed the correctional institution’s annual budget.
In a 2016 article, Caterina Spinaris, noted that mandatory overtime can contribute to officer-related illnesses and injuries. The injuries related to mandatory overtime and sleep-deprivation has led to considerable increases in worker’s compensation claims. This can become a vicious cycle with long-term financial consequences. Budgets must account for adequate staffing 24/7, overtime costs, and worker’s compensation leave.
Breaking the Cycle of Mandatory Overtime
Rectifying the problem of mandatory overtime will not be easy. To maintain safety and security, administrators must maintain the minimum staff-to-prisoner ratio, while also taking into account the needs of individual staff members and the financial impacts on the institution and the taxpayers.
Sadly, in my experience as a criminal justice professor, mandatory overtime is one reason why many students are steering away from a career in corrections. Those who do accept a position in corrections do so with the purposeful intent of using it as a stepping-stone to another position within the criminal justice field.
While there are no easy answers, administrators and corrections leaders must do something to stop this harmful trend of mandatory overtime that contributes to higher rates of employee turnover, and already-strained staff shortages across the nation. It is a vicious cycle and we need to find an effective way of breaking the cycle.
About the Author
Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.