An independent arbitrator has sided with the first Black woman union president at a Yazoo City federal prison who faced gender discrimination, retaliation and violation of her union contract.
Cyndee Price, president of Local 1013 of the American Federation of Government Employees, was awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages, over 1,000 hours worth of overtime back wages and additional legal fees, arbitrator Ed W. Bankston ordered July 14.
“It’s been like hell for the past two years,” she said about her experience as union president.
Price became president in June 2020 and is the first Black woman to serve as union president at any federal prison in the country, according to the national branch of AFGE.
In her role at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Price said she called out prison management at Federal Correctional Complex Yazoo City for not providing staff and inmates with masks and following federal guidance to minimize the virus’ spread. She also reported management for misconduct to multiple agencies.
The former Michigan resident grew up around unions and to her, unions have a purpose. She became a union steward in 2013 and wanted to be someone who can speak for others in the workplace.
“What made me want to step up is I hate bullies,” Price told Mississippi Today.
Duties of a union officer can be like a full time job, which is why Price applied for 100% official time. Official time is paid time off for federal employees to perform union duties, such as negotiating contracts, meeting with administration and helping staff with complaints.
“Everything that we’re responsible for doing as a president, you can’t do that while overseeing 700 people and dual responsibilities,” she said.
Official time is part of federal law and the union’s contract.
As president, Price said she faced retaliation and gender-based discrimination by prison management.
In her grievance, Price said former prison Warden Shannon Withers and Assistant Walter Vereen did not grant her official time, saying it was no longer Bureau of Prisons policy.
She said the decision was gender-based because her predecessor, a man, had been granted official time and male union presidents at other federal prisons had been granted official time.
“It continues to be the practice of management under the direction of the Complex Warden, Shannon Withers, to allow management under his disciplinary authority and directions to engage in patterns of unethical behavior, and practices, unilaterally circumventing and repudiating the parties’ (collective bargaining agreement),” her Sept. 25, 2020 grievance states.
Former BOP Southeast Regional Director J.A. Keller said he denied Price’s grievance because it was improperly filed, according to arbitration records. He also reiterated what the warden had told her: it was no longer policy to grant official time.
Because she wasn’t granted official time, Price said she took the work home with her. She worked on union matters on top of caring for two young children and a sick husband.
Price will receive back pay for 1,080 hours of overtime work. Bankston, the arbitrator, ordered the BOP to grant 100% official time for as long as Price is a union official.
In his decision, Bankston said Withers unilaterally chose to end the use of official time and he didn’t have the authority to do so. The union argued denial of official time is an unfair labor practice and violation of its agreement.
In her grievance, she also alleged the wardens and regional director directed other staff to retaliate against her by writing her up, following her and subjecting her to eight investigations and potential removal from her job as a case manager. Price has worked for the prison for 11 years and she said she had a clear work record until she became union president.
Price said these actions created a hostile work environment that filled her with anxiety.
“These managers here believe they are beyond reproach. And that’s what I was trying to report,” she said.
In the decision, the arbitrator agreed Price faced “adverse and unwarranted personnel actions with changed privileges, conditions, and terms of employment.”
A spokesperson from the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment, saying the agency does not comment on settlement offers, negotiations or terms. Keller, Vereen and Withers were not made available for interviews.
Price said Withers and Vereen no longer work at FCC Yazoo City. Withers is a warden at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman in Florida and Vereen and Keller retired from the agency, a BOP spokesperson confirmed.
Since new leaders have come to the prison, Price said hasn’t experienced harassment and retaliation.
Despite the arbitration, Price expects the BOP to appeal the decision to potentially get out of granting her official time and paying her for the overtime hours.
She hopes newer prison and agency leaders will hold the people named in her grievance accountable. Price would also like the investigations the previous management launched against her to be removed.
Price said the new management is trying to turn things at the prison around, but she wants them to form a better working relationship with the union.
“I just want to do my elected duties in peace,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about what is best for the employees.”