More than a dozen corrections officers who work at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland brought their contract negotiation grievances before county commissioners Monday night, their chief concern being the loss of a shack on jail property where officers can go for smoke breaks.

Though the officers’ contract expired in June 2014 and the union that represents them has other concerns, such as changes in health care coverage and officers being forced into supervisory roles, officials say the loss of the so-called smoke shack has several members riled up.

Dennis Welch, president of Local 110 of the National Correctional Employees Union, said there has been a smoke break provision in the contract since 1994. Now, the county is demanding that the shack be closed to comply with its new smoke-free workplace policy. Welch said the county can’t do that unless it is willing to offer the union something in return.

More than 40 corrections officers take breaks in the smoke shack, which is 150 feet outside the facility, Welch estimated.

“This is the first time we have been in a contract dispute with the county that has nothing to do with money,” said Welch, with the county indicating it is willing to give corrections officers a 2 percent wage increase if they can reach agreement on a new contract.

Welch said the union will wait a week for the county to respond to its concerns before taking any action, which might involve picketing at the jail.

Monday’s contract protest began on the roof of a parking garage near the Cumberland County Courthouse in downtown Portland, where the officers gathered to strategize. They eventually walked to the courthouse for the commissioners’ monthly meeting.

Officer David Skibitsky read a statement.

“We work eight, sometimes 16 hours a day at the jail, doing a job that we constantly have to be vigilant the entire shift. There is no down time for us. As soon as we show up for work, we are ready for any situation that could face us,” Skibitsky said. “The county has recently initiated a policy that says smoking is not allowed on county property, perhaps forgetting that we have ‘smoke breaks’ in our contract.”

Skibitsky said the shack represents a job benefit for smokers who need a break from the pressures of operating a jail with potentially dangerous inmates. And he noted that county employees who don’t work at the jail can simply walk a few feet off county property to smoke.

County officials, who are trying to promote a smoke-free workplace, said earlier this year that employees are not allowed to smoke on county property, including county vehicles, the jail and its smoke shack.

“It’s because we want to have healthy employees,” County Manager Peter Crichton said before Monday’s commissioners’ meeting. “Smoking cessation is part of our wellness program. One of the most significant health care costs we are seeing is for cancer treatments.”

Crichton said he realizes that employees don’t like the idea of eliminating the smoke shack, but it makes sense if the county is to move forward with its goal of creating a healthier workplace.

Crichton said Cumberland County must also find a way to bring its health insurance costs under control. Its health insurance premiums in 2014 totaled $3.6 million.

The union said its other major concern is with corrections officers being “forced into a supervisory role.” Union officials say the correctional staff is left shorthanded when a member is pulled out of his regular job to fill in for a supervisor who calls in sick or goes on vacation. They want that option stricken from the contract.

Welch said he wasn’t surprised by the commissioners’ lack of response but the officers achieved their goal – to raise awareness of the status of contract negotiations that began in April 2014. Local 110 represents about 130 corrections officers at the jail in Portland.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]