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Sheriff faces federal lawsuit over pay policies for jailers

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A federal lawsuit over pay periods and work schedules has become a persistent blot on the calendar of Alamance County’s sheriff.

Sheriff Terry Johnson has been embroiled in this ongoing court battle since the spring of last year, when one of his detention officers took legal action over a compensation policy that has allegedly cheated him and other jailers out of some of their wages.

Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

The plaintiff, Andrew S. Beers, originally filed this suit in May of 2023 to recover the pay that he insists he was shorted under this policy. Since then, a second jailer has joined Beers, who is currently seeking class action status for his complaint in order bring other detention officers into the fight.

Although the sheriff has flatly denied the claims in this suit, the issues it brings up are nevertheless relevant to an intractable problem with turnover among the detention officers in Alamance County’s jail.

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Over the past several years, Johnson has repeatedly approached the county’s board of commissioners about the jail’s high rate of defections – which the board has tried to address through multiple pay raises as well as a bonus of $4,000 a year that has been extended to the shift workers in the sheriff’s employ.

Yet, if the allegations in the lawsuit are accurate, these gestures may have been all for naught due to payroll practices that have left some jailers convinced that they still aren’t getting their due.

At issue in this particular case is a compensatory system that’s allegedly at odds with the work schedules of jailers, who work 12-hour shifts in blocks of two to three days that alternate with two to three days of time off.

According to Beers’ lawsuit, this rotating block schedule can have a particular jailer on the clock for anywhere from 171.5 to 208.25 hours a month. But while the lawsuit contends that jailers are paid on an “hourly basis,” they reportedly get a fixed amount each month that equates to 173.33 hours of labor – regardless of how many hours they actually put in.

The lawsuit asserts that Beers tried to address this discrepancy through the regular channels on several occasions before he decided to take legal action in 2023.

“Beginning in 2019 and continuing through early 2023,” the lawsuit recalls, “[the] plaintiff made numerous complaints to [the] defendant’s management representatives regarding the violation of law at issue in this lawsuit. To date, [the] defendant has refused to acknowledge its unlawful pay practice or cease to engage in its unlawful activities.”

As an illustration of how this policy works, the lawsuit notes that Beers worked a total of 16 shifts lasting 12.25 hours apiece in January of 2023. When factoring in extra time outside those shifts, Beers reportedly spent 197.75 hours on the clock that month, although the lawsuit observes that he was paid for only 173.33 hours, leaving 24.42 hours for which he was never remunerated. This discrepancy also allegedly spills over to calculations of overtime and holiday pay and even reduces the value of the aforementioned bonus, or “shift differential,” which equates to $333.33 a month in additional compensation.

Philip J. Gibbons, Jr., the attorney who authored this suit, contends that this compensatory policy amounts to a breach of contract under state law. He also accuses the sheriff of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to keep an accurate count of overtime hours under this policy.

“[The] defendant’s violation of the FLSA was willful,” the suit goes on to assert.

Gibbons ultimately suggests that his client’s claim should be couched as a class action since it concerns treatment that the sheriff has allegedly meted out to all of the detention officers he has employed since May 5, 2020. The plaintiff’s attorney adds that at least 75 people could be plausibly included in the complaint.

“The claims of [the] plaintiff are typical of those claims that could be alleged by any member of the proposed class,” he asserts, “and the relief sought is typical of the relief that would be sought by each member of the class in separate actions.”

The sheriff, for his part, has been loathe to accept these allegations, and in July of 2023, he filed a legal rejoinder that demanded the lawsuit’s dismissal.

Patrick H. Flanagan, the attorney who has represented Johnson in this particular case, contends that his client has done everything by the book regardless of what the plaintiff may think.

“The employment practices of the defendant are now, and have been during the period of time referenced in the complaint, conducted in all aspects in accordance with state and federal law, and in good faith…[The] defendant’s actions, practices, and policies about which [the] plaintiff complains are, have been, based on legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons and are and have been necessary to the orderly, safe, and efficient operation of [the] defendant’s business.”

Flanagan also argued that Beers’ lawsuit had no standing as a class action claim since his situation is “not typical” of “each putative class member.”

In spite of the defendant’s assertion, Beers’ action attracted a Katherine White as a co-plaintiff in October of 2023. Since then, the two plaintiffs have filed a motion for class certification that remains up in the air.

Since this lawsuit was filed, the federal court system has made several attempts to reach an amicable settlement in this case. So far, nothing has come from these court-ordered mediation sessions – with the latest on May 31 of this year, having come to an “impasse,” according to federal court records.

According to Alamance County’s attorney Rik Stevens, the county has not made any changes to its compensatory polices in light of this ongoing lawsuit.

“We’ve not committed to any changes to our pay practices related to this litigation,” Stevens stated in response to an inquiry from The Alamance News. “The county has, in the recent past, solicited employee feedback on the desire to move from a monthly to a biweekly pay cycle, but that consideration is not related to this litigation.  To date, I’m not aware of any decisions to change pay frequency for county employees.”

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