As the global pandemic continues to drag on, local governments are having to dig into their coffers to pay for work normally done by Arizona Department of Corrections inmates.
“It’s killing us. Inmate labor around this valley is so important to all of us, and we haven’t had it for a year now,” said Sean Lewis, Pima town manager.
At first, the Town of Pima hired teenagers using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, but it’s run out, Lewis said.
Pima is now in the process of hiring four full-time temporary employees at $12.50 an hour compared to the .50 cents an hour the inmates were getting.
“It’s a drastic difference in our budget,” Lewis said.
The town doesn’t have many reserves in the budget for this type of expense, and Lewis said the government is struggling to make do. However, the needs of the town are there and maintenance has to be done.
The inmates cleaned parks, maintained roads, cleaned public buildings and worked on general construction projects and the sewers.
Graham County, the City of Safford and the Towns of Thatcher and Duncan tried to make do by having their employees multitask, but they, too, have had to hire additional temporary staff.
Dustin Welker, Graham County manager, said the county was falling behind in general maintenance. The county is using money from the general fund for its contract employees, and isn’t struggling overmuch, he said.
The City of Safford is in the same boat.
“It’s had more of an impact on our ability from a workload standpoint than it has monetarily,” said John Cassella, Safford city manager. “I’m trying to not spend additional funds because it’s a temporary situation. It just happens to be an extended temporary situation.”
Anne Thurman, Duncan Mayor, said the town had to hire one more full-time temporary employee and their pay is coming from an emergency fund.
It eventually got to the point that hiring additional staff was preferable to paying for a lot of overtime, especially since those funds weren’t part of their current budget, said Heath Brown, Thatcher town manager.
“For many months we did rely on our employees to perform extra duties that the inmates had been doing and they really stepped up and had great attitudes about it,” Brown said.
In Clifton, town employees are picking up the extra duties, but some projects, such as fixing the splash pad, have had to be put on hold for a year.
“At the time that there was a significant surge of infections, we chose the health and safety of our employees over the benefit of having prison labor, and it will continue to be,” said Rudy Perez, Clifton town manager.
Derek Rapier, Greenlee County manager, said despite the lack of inmate workforce, the county has not hired more temporary employees.
“We have done our best to manage with the folks that we already have on staff. With all of the uncertainty last spring/summer when we were setting our budget, Greenlee County made the decision to hold expenditures flat,” Rapier said.
Perez hopes the inmate workforce will return once they’ve been inoculated.
Bill Lamoreaux, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said the health of the inmates and communities is the top priority.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the department has taken broad actions to mitigate the risk and impact of COVID-19 in all of its facilities. Keeping our staff, inmates and communities safe continues to be our top priority. ADCRR continues to follow CDC and ADHS guidelines for correctional facilities and has done so throughout the pandemic to remain vigilant on all fronts with robust COVID-19 management strategies to reduce the spread at its statewide facilities,” Lamoreaux said via email.