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The Utah Court of Appeals has sided against workers who transport Utah inmates to and from the prison, saying the state Department of Corrections did not breach a pay agreement with the officers.

In a 3-0 decision handed down last week, the court agreed the department is not required to permanently maintain a three-step pay differential between transportation officers and other types of prison officers. The ruling upheld a decision made by a lower court judge.

According to court documents, the department entered into an agreement in 1996 to provide a pay differential amounting to a three-step pay grade increase to transportation officers — who ferry inmates to court, doctors visits, and other prisons and jails — because of the difficulty of attracting and retaining those employees. The agreement was later modified to say that transportation officers who served at least three years would retain their elevated pay steps permanently when they left the unit, the ruling states.

But the pay incentive was discontinued in 2007 for new officers who joined the unit. And in 2008, the department shifted all employees, including those in the transportation unit, into a straight-line career ladder pay scale.

In a suit filed in 2012 in 3rd District Court, 36 current and former transportation officers and one SWAT unit member claimed the shift to a career ladder pay scale breached the modified agreement that said transportation officers who joined the unit before 2007 and stayed at least three years would retain the pay incentive if they left the unit. Although their salaries were not reduced in the shift, the transportation officers alleged that the straight-ladder pay scheme would have the effect of diluting their differential over time.

The officers were seeking back pay, retirement fund contributions and interest on the earnings they claim they should have received under the agreement.

The department responded that the pay incentive agreement established only that transportation officers who had reached the three-year mark and gotten the incentive before 2007 cannot lose that raise — not that they are entitled to maintain a three-step pay differential above non-transportation officers in perpetuity.

And lawyers for the department pointed out that if a transportation officer walked lockstep with another officer during their entire careers, the transportation officer could conceivably maintain the three-step pay-grade differential.

The transportation officers filed an appeal after Judge L.A. Dever ruled there was no language in the agreement that supported their interpretation and granted the department's motion for judgment in its favor.

In affirming Dever's decision, the Court of Appeals said the pay agreement provides for transportation officers to be treated the same as other officers for purposes of promotions and raises.

A promise to maintain the transportation officers' three-step pay-grade differential in perpetuity cannot reasonably be construed from the agreement's language, the appeals court said, "except to the extent the pay-grade differential naturally persists as a result of transportation officers receiving raises and promotions at the same rate as other officers."

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC