AFSCME law enforcement members trek to Capitol to sound alarm on the staffing crisis

For Jeff Vars, visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill gave him the chance to go beyond statistics, to tell the personal stories behind the 2,000 corrections officers he represents in Minnesota.

He described the recent assault of a fellow corrections officer – a beloved colleague and a mother. He sounded the alarm on the staffing crisis in law enforcement; how demoralizing it feels being slapped with another 8-hour shift, with an hour left to go on your current one. He talked about what it’s like to miss your kid’s soccer game or dance recital for the third week in a row. Most importantly, he talked about how inadequate staffing makes everyone less safe and puts lives at unnecessary risk.

“They need to hear our stories,” said Vars, vice president of Local 915 (Council 5) and president of the AFSCME Corrections Policy Committee. “It needs to come from people doing these jobs, the people who can tell a story only they can tell. We’re the ones doing the work.”

Shirley Eby, a correctional captain at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana, and a member of AFSCME Local 2702 (Council 17), was able to dispel the misconceptions lawmakers might have had about what it’s like to work in a prison.

“A lot of people watch what they see on TV, but it’s totally different working inside the prison,” said Eby. “You have to actually go inside the prison to see what goes on.”

Vars, Eby and other AFSCME public safety professionals gathered in Washington this month to share their stories and the stories of the people they represent with congressional lawmakers. They talked about the staffing crises in their states, the mental health toll that their jobs exact, the ever-present risk of lethal substances and violence, as well as many other challenges they face.

For Vars, who met with Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig’s staff, it was a powerful experience, the beginning of what he hopes will be a longer discussion with his member of Congress that may bring about important changes on the job.

Eby said that she and her fellow law enforcement professionals’ visit to Washington showed “our strength in numbers.” She encourages others to get involved in the legislative process.

The public safety workers described how the staffing crisis in our country’s correctional institutions, which mirrors the staffing crisis across all public service jobs, is truly a matter of life and death – both for people who work in prisons and for offenders. They requested increased funding for Department of Justice programs, which are the leading source of public safety funds for states and localities.

They also encouraged lawmakers to support bipartisan legislation to prevent secondary exposure to lethal substancesstudy and develop treatments for PTSD, and study and treat concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

AFSCME law enforcement professionals say it’s critical to share their experiences with lawmakers, and Eby’s call to action for other union members is an important one: “The more people we have, the more they will listen.”