State reclaimed cash through prison paychecks
RALEIGH — Six correctional officers at a Wayne County prison were mistakenly overpaid for four years, but shortcomings in the state's payroll system meant they were put through "unreasonable hardship" by having their entire paychecks withheld to recover the money, according to a state audit report released Tuesday.
The six officers at the now-closed Wayne Correctional Center were overpaid more than $58,000 between 2008 and 2012 because the system caused all of their work hours to be paid at a higher night-shift rate instead of only the hours eligible for the extra pay, the report by State Auditor Beth Wood's office said.
The six correctional officers were responsible for transporting inmates on prison buses to doctor appointments or court appearances, and they often started their work days between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. to meet early-morning schedules, the report said. So while the correctional officers draw premium pay for part of their work days, they weren't entitled to all the extra money, the report said. Prison administrators had issued memos and a formal policy that were "inconsistent and unclear" on how much the officers were due, the audit said.
"Due to unclear policies, the exact amount of the overpayment was difficult to determine, and the manner in which the overpayments were recouped caused an unreasonable hardship on the employees," the report said.
The audit didn't break down how much each officer was paid extra in each paycheck over four years.
The state's computerized payroll system withheld entire monthly paychecks from the guards, leaving them struggling to pay the bills and causing more problems like the cut-off of medical insurance coverage, the audit said. Prison administrators eventually established a repayment plan with each officer to relieve their financial hardship, the report said.
State laws require payroll overpayments to be recovered and allows agencies to withhold future wages, but an employee's written agreement to have at least 10 percent of net earnings withheld "shall be deemed to be repaying the money within a reasonable amount of time," the audit said.
North Carolina's prison system is shrinking from 66 facilities to 61 next month as outdated and costly-to-operate lockups for almost 38,000 inmates are shuttered. The 428-bed, medium-security Wayne prison closed in October, a prison system spokesman said.
The Department of Public Safety, which includes the division responsible for adult prisons and juvenile lockups, said in a written response that it agreed with the audit's key findings. The state payroll system makes it difficult to pay transportation officers extra even if they don't regularly work 12-hour shifts, department officials said.
"We also agree that the payroll system's current procedure for the recoupment of payroll overpayment creates unreasonable hardships for employees in the event of overpayment and should be modified," the agency said.