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Trial focuses on Pinellas jail deputies' lunch breaks

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Published:   |   Updated: July 17, 2013 at 10:58 AM

CLEARWATER - The Pinellas County Jail is a workplace so fraught with potential dangers that detention deputies don't dare leave the premises, or turn off their radios - even while they are eating - for fear one of their outnumbered colleagues might need help.

Or, the jail has been an environment with so much flexibility that the guards can use a half-hour break to work out at a gym, read, take a nap or grab take-out.

Those were the two ways the jail was described on Tuesday, as a trial got under way pitting the deputies against Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his two predecessors, Jim Coats and Everett Rice.

Former detention deputy Douglas Morgan, on behalf of himself and fellow detention deputies, filed a lawsuit in March 2006, claiming they were all made to work an extra half-hour each shift without pay. Morgan started working for the sheriff's office in 1985 and retired in 2004.

Deputies are at the jail for 8 1/2 hours each shift but are only paid for eight because 30 minutes is supposedly reserved for meal time, Morgan claims in his suit.

As there are roughly 1,000 detention deputies who are said to have worked that half-hour without compensation since 2004, the potential damages exceed $10 million, said Tommy Roebig, one of the attorneys representing the detention deputies, during a break. As of now, there are about 750 detention deputies employed at the jail.

Speaking to jurors during opening statements, Roebig said the detention deputies had been promised to be paid whenever they worked. That promise was broken, though, he said.

"Right this minute, as I speak to you, on a shift over at the jail facility, the promise is being broken," he said.

Detention deputies' radios are never turned off, so they are constantly on alert, and ready to be summoned. That means they are not getting an uninterrupted half-hour for a meal every shift, as they have expected, Roebig said.

The reason the radios need to be turned on at all times is because the jail is inherently a dangerous place, with inmates running the gamut - from gang members to murderers on their way to prison for life - and who have "nothing to lose," he told jurors.

It is also a loud place, with screaming and singing, it's hot, it smells, and it's overcrowded, the attorney said.

In such a setting, communication among deputies is crucial to their survival, Roebig told jurors.

"That is why they must stay connected," Roebig said. "That is why the radio is never off."

Rather than take the half-hour, detention deputies typically stay at their work stations and "gobble down a sandwich," the attorney told jurors. When they do get a chance to go to what he called a chow hall, they are surrounded by inmates who are cooking and serving the food.

Rich McCrea, the private Tampa attorney defending the sheriffs, portrayed a much less nightmarish work environment.

In 2003, he said, a policy was put into effect that allowed detention deputies to do as they wished during their unpaid half hour, as long as they told their supervisors where they were.

Lunch wasn't formal, so deputies often decided amongt themselves who would eat and when, with one perhaps offering to go get take-out for a small group, McCrea said.

Morgan, the former deputy who filed the lawsuit, sometimes used his half hour to go to the gym. Deputies were also free to go to the parking lot, nap, read a book or make phone calls during their half-hour.

As for their radios being turned on, McCrea described this as a passive activity, not an active one. And if a detention deputy is summoned - and his half hour interrupted - he can fill out paperwork asking to be given over-time, compensatory time or flexible time.

In 2004 alone, more than 1,500 such requests were submitted, he told jurors. The number of requests made during succeeding years wasn't immediately available at the sheriff's office.

The jury is to decide only whether the sheriff's office is liable. A second jury will be empaneled to decide damages if the first one decides in Morgan's favor.

Coats is expected to testify today, Rice on Thursday and Gualtieri on Friday. The trial is expected to last eight days.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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