Being a corrections officer is not for everybody.
It’s one of those jobs that qualified applicants must be lured to—specifically, with better pay—so as to lure such applicants away from jobs that don’t involve being literally locked in with people who have been sentenced to prison.
So while we understand Gov. Tony Evers’ motivation in giving state Department of Corrections employees temporary raises, we share Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ concerns about how the raises are being distributed.
Last week, Evers authorized temporary raises of up to $5 an hour to workers at six state prisons. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported guards and sergeants at Columbia, Dodge, Green Bay, Taycheedah and Waupun correctional institutions, as well as at the Lincoln Hills youth prison, will receive the additional pay.
“While providing raises for our correctional officers is the right thing to do, cherry picking which facilities receive the benefits is fundamentally unfair and creates unnecessary animosity in a system that already needs reform,” said Vos, R-Rochester.
We believe the raises can, and should, vary according to merit and the risk involved with each position. But our elected officials are right to be discussing raises for such work: People who can find a less hazardous job than corrections officer are probably going to do that, so the state is going to have to pay better, especially in a time of record-low unemployment.
Overtime hours, turnover and vacancy rates in the state’s prison system rose dramatically over the past five fiscal years, according to a report by state auditors late last month.
DOC Secretary-designate Kevin Carr said in a letter to auditors that unless the agency can get control of vacancies, things probably won’t change.
“Until the vacancy rates of our institutions are decreased, overtime will continue to be the reality for many employees,” he said.
The number of paid overtime hours within DOC institutions grew 50.7% from fiscal year 2013-14 to fiscal year 2017-18, auditors found. Of the $397.5 million the state spent on DOC wages in fiscal year 2017-18, nearly $53 million, or 13%, went to cover overtime hours worked mostly by security personnel.
Auditors found the turnover rate for guards grew from just under 18% in 2013-14 to 26% in 2017-18. The vacancy rate for security personnel, including guards, more than doubled over the five fiscal years, from 6.7% to 14%. As of June 2018, the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, four prisons had vacancy rates of 20% or higher. Three of those four were maximum-security institutions.
The report notes that perceptions that prison jobs aren’t safe and low pay are likely fueling the turnovers and vacancies.
Evers’ budget calls for spending an additional $23.8 million to implement a pay progression system for guards, sergeants and psychiatrists within DOC and the state Department of Health Services.
Raising the starting wage for Wisconsin guards to $17.90, the median starting wage for guards in surrounding states, would cost about $30 million, the report indicates. But when you’re spending $53 million annually on overtime, $30 million is a bargain.
DOC is attempting to retain workers through training academies at six institutions where guard applicants work alongside guards and job fairs at its prisons, auditors noted.
Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, co-chairman of the audit committee, said in a statement that DOC needs better data to determine the effectiveness of its worker retention programs.
“The goal is still to reduce staffing vacancies, turnover and instances of excessive overtime,” Cowles said.
Sen. Cowles has a good point. When, for example, $18 an hour turns into $27 for each hour of overtime, raising the starting pay for guards to $20 per hour starts to look better and better to prospective employees—and to taxpayers.
Gov. Evers should give all DOC guards and sergeants a raise, especially since those raises appear to have the backing of Speaker Vos. Then, he and the Legislature should work together to find ways to retain a sufficient number of employees to cut back on all the overtime.