Ohio's prisons department announced Thursday the possibility of more than two dozen layoffs as the state phases out its prison farm program, while signaling its interest in quickly placing affected workers into new positions.
State prisons chief Gary Mohr told The Associated Press the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has been unable to place 28 of roughly 70 affected employees.
A layoff "rationale" filed Thursday triggers collective bargaining rights for displaced prison farm workers and was a required step under their contract to placing them into new jobs.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the state's largest public employee union, has fought the move to close a prison farming operation that dates back to 1868. The union is reviewing the layoff filing to determine whether it should be challenged.
Mohr, who originally predicted no layoffs would be necessary, said the department has more than 300 job openings and he doesn't anticipate a problem placing the displaced farm program workers.
"It's regrettable from my perspective and it doesn't make common sense, quite frankly, for us not to just be able to sit down one-on-one and talk about opportunities with these folks," he told the AP. "But we've got to get this thing going and alleviate some of the uncertainties for our staff, and we need to get these folks placed in positions we need."
Union president Christopher Mabe said his organization has been demanding the filing of the layoff rationale for a year. OCSEA filed an unfair labor practice complaint over the state's failure to issue the notice and sought an injunction in court.
"Our union contract ensures that employees have equal rights and protections, including in a layoff process. Not only do we have a process that treats everyone fairly, we have a procedure that both sides agreed to in contract negotiations," he said in a statement. "Making sure the process is a fair one is not always the easiest thing to do, but it's always the right thing to do."
The state's shuttering of the prison farm program was aimed at raising millions of dollars through land sales to fund new rehabilitation and job-training programs for inmates. About 220 inmates worked on the farms at the height of the season. Few, if any, took farm jobs upon release.
"It might even have been an argument to keep the farms if we were placing hundreds, or thousands, of inmates — we arrest 20,000 people a year in Ohio," Mohr said Thursday. "If a prime employer were farms in Ohio, then I'd have to take a second look at that."
The state operated beef or cattle farms at eight prisons and raised crops at two others. The department had about 2,300 beef cattle and 1,000 dairy cows at the time the program was shut down. It has so far raised about $4.5 million at auction from the sale of cattle and equipment from the nine farms being shuttered. A tenth farm, in Chillicothe, has remained operational due to a federal deed restriction.
The roughly 12,000 acres of state-owned farmland has been leased for the next growing season, officials said. Legislators have not yet cleared the property for sale.
The union has argued there is no clear rationale for the prisons department to make the change, alleging that food industry lobbyists had advocated the shutdown for years.