RICHMOND — After working 12-hour shifts, a group of guards from Lunenburg Correctional Center drove two hours to Richmond on Tuesday morning to plead for equal treatment from the General Assembly.
Joined by corrections officers from several other state prisons, the guards made the case that their dangerous, low-paid jobs should get the same health-care protections that all other categories of law enforcement in Virginia already enjoy.
They got sympathy. They got a standing ovation. They got boxed lunches.
And, in a closely divided General Assembly that's trying out a more bipartisan mind-set, they got the first sign of hope after years of failure.
Del. John Bell (D-Loudoun) hosted the guards at the Capitol as he made the case for his House Bill 107, which seeks to give corrections officers something called "disease presumption" under workers' compensation laws.
Other law enforcement jobs — including state police, Alcoholic Beverage Control officers and even game wardens — carry the presumption that if the officer comes down with certain diseases or ailments, it can be attributed to their high-stress employment. That helps them get workers' compensation benefits.
Corrections officers have been fighting for such standing for years.
"It really pains me to the core that our brothers and sisters who are serving us today as correctional officers do not have that same protection," Bell said Tuesday at a news conference with more than two dozen officers.
Virginia spends some $20 million a year recruiting and training corrections officers, but could save money if it provided better pay and benefits to cut down on job turnover, Bell said. Some prisons have turnover as high as 49 percent, he said.
In the third quarter of last year alone, the state paid to train 565 new corrections officers and simultaneously lost 510 officers who resigned, Bell said. About one-fifth of the more than 5,800 corrections officers employed by the state make so little money that they qualify for food stamps, he said.
Sgt. Rodney Martin, a 12-year veteran of the Lunenburg prison, said many of his colleagues take their state training and go get better jobs with sheriff's departments, federal prisons or even Walmart.
"We're told that we're not supposed to say anything" to criticize the department, Martin said. The fact that he and so many colleagues came to Richmond, he said, shows "how serious this is to us."
The guards went on to receive a standing ovation from the House of Delegates, but when they accompanied Bell to a subcommittee meeting, the tone was more harsh.
As he presented his legislation to a panel of the House Commerce and Trade committee, Bell faced sharp questions about cost. Lobbyists for the insurance industry said the measure would make workers' compensation claims skyrocket.
Subcommittee chairman Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem) praised two steps Bell had taken. One was a companion measure Bell submitted calling for exit interviews to determine whether more guards could be retained. Habeeb also appreciated that Bell's bill covered only communicable diseases, not the full gamut of heart and lung ailments that are much costlier.
"There's no question these people are exposed to incredible risk of violence and harm," Habeeb said. The issue is "what's the best way to take care of those folks in our limited state resources?"
And with that, for the first time, the subcommittee voted in favor of the measure — but also referred it to the Appropriations Committee because of its fiscal impact.
That's a tall mountain left to scale. The corrections officers trudged out of the hearing looking dejected. But Senior Officer Calvin Parker of Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake said the long day had been worth it.
"I really think that they see the need and the concern of the officers," he said. Parker is an 18-year veteran of four prison facilities whose experience includes being attacked by inmates. "There are 32 prisons across Virginia, and every day every officer's life is on the line," he said. "They should be taken care of."