Luzerne County has agreed to pay a combined $32,350 in back wages to four prison canine handlers for taking care of their dogs at home, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The payments stem from a compliance agreement the county reached with the labor department’s wage and hour division, which investigates reports of payroll violations, said department spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson.
County Assistant Solicitor Steve Menn said the matter came before the department because of former county prison K-9 officer Joseph Petrovich’s pending federal suit against the county seeking back pay.
Petrovich, who argues he is owed $71,059 in back pay, said the prison failed to follow a Fair Labor Standards Act requirement to provide additional compensation to K-9 officers who must keep the dogs at their homes.
Case law has established handlers should receive an additional 30 minutes per day, seven days per week, for at-home care, including bathing, exercising, grooming and feeding the canines, Petrovich has said.
Handlers across the country have received back-pay settlements for at-home care in jurisdictions that didn’t comply with the requirement, according to published reports.
Menn said the county failed to make the payments, which covered multiple years, because the requirement was “misunderstood.” The county fully cooperated with the labor department to rectify the matter, he said.
“The county wanted to ensure it was in compliance,” Menn said.
The following payments have been made, according to county budget and policy analyst Jason Parrish: Eugene Shinal, $8,438; Scott Jaskulski, $5,829; Mark Chudoba, $9,640; James Leary, $8,442.
Any payment to Petrovich will be determined through his litigation, Menn said. Petrovich was furloughed and has purchased his now-retired canine.
The status of the prison K-9 program is “up in the air,” Menn said.
The county spent $11,054 last year for the food, veterinary care and training of four dogs, though only two were on active duty because their handlers’ positions were eliminated as part of budget cuts, prison officials have said. Those two K-9 officers bumped into corrections-officer positions held by workers with less seniority.
Acting Prison Warden James Larson said only one dog is on duty — handled by Jaskulski — because Shinal and his dog retired earlier this year.
The two remaining 6-year-old dogs stay at home with their handlers, Larson said.
The county is expected to scale back or eliminate the program and rely more on other agencies with K-9 units for periodic inspections.
Larson declined to discuss whether the program should remain, saying the decision is up to county officials.
Former Prison Warden Joe Piazza has said he was reluctant to stop supporting the two younger, at-home dogs because the county has made “an investment” and might want to bring them back to work in the future. Canines typically retire at 9 or 10 years old and rarely live past 12.
Piazza has said the program has value because the canines are “more thorough” searching for drugs and a “great deterrent.”
The five dogs had been purchased for a combined $95,600, officials say. County officials started the prison K-9 program in 2005 to enhance drug detection and prevent disturbances.