Despite recent salary increases, the state corrections union says pay for Nebraska prison guards still lags behind that of county jails, which are luring away too many state employees.
Current starting wages for a Nebraska Department of Corrections officer are $1.43 to $2.43 an hour less than what jailers working for Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties are paid.
Officials with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents state corrections security staff, said that gap grows to more than $4 per hour after six years for officers and just more than $9 an hour for sergeants. Without overtime, that amounts to an additional $8,320 and $18,720 per year, respectively.
Last year, state prison workers received raises in starting pay ranging from $1.56 per hour for officers and $3.40 per hour for sergeants in the most recent effort to close the gap. Union officials said that while that has helped, the state still saw 367 corrections officers, corporals and sergeants leave for other jobs last year, including transfers to county jails.
A $10,000 hiring bonus has also been provided by the state, but union officials said that the bonus ends after three years and that state workers soon find out that they can make more money elsewhere.
"Before we were hemorrhaging (staff), bleeding out. We just put a Band-Aid on it. Now we have to heal the wound," said Jerry Brittain, the vice president of the union.
It's not right, state officials said, to compare state wages with those paid by counties. By law, wages for state corrections workers must be comparable with what other states pay, and when compared with states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma in 2019, Nebraska paid the best, they said.
"Recruitment and retention issues are not singular to Corrections. It is a challenge in other industries as well," the Corrections Department and the Governor's Office said in a joint statement. "While pay tends to draw people to jobs, it provides no assurance that they will stay. Many other factors come into play."
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes has said previously that Nebraska's low unemployment rate and the difficulty of working in a prison are the main drivers of the difficulty in retaining staff, not competition from county jails.
Turnover of security staff has been trending downward, from 34% in 2017 to 27% last year. But the number of vacant positions in the agency rose slightly last year, ending 2020 at 218 vacancies compared with 211 at the end of 2019. The vacancies required Corrections to pay $13.4 million in overtime to fill vacant posts in the fiscal year ending July 1.
A major question facing the prison proposal has been staffing. If the state can't fully staff the prisons it has now, what are the chances that it could staff a new $230 million prison?
Two members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, which crafts the state budget, said better wages for correctional officers has to be part of the conversation.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, whose district includes three state prisons and many corrections workers' homes, said state wages should be comparable to what's being paid by nearby counties for similar work.
Wishart said she supports conducting a wage study to ensure that corrections staff pay is comparable.
Mike Chipman, the union president, said the state refused to consider a higher pay raise. He said that the union could have taken the wage issue to the State Commission of Industrial Relations, but that it would have lost because only wages paid by other states are allowed to be compared, and Nebraska's wages are comparable.
But, Chipman and Brittain said, wages need to be compared with those paid by nearby county jails, not faraway states, because that's who's competing for corrections officers.
State officials said Corrections recently added two employee recruiters and has resumed job fairs, leadership development training and other efforts interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new prison, they pointed out, will be in an area where there is adequate workforce to staff it. In addition, it will have many modern amenities that are lacking in other prisons.
"That alone will help attract and retain staff," said the statement from Corrections and the Governor's Office.
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