By December 4, 2017 Read More →

Interims: Pay raises could cut down on corrections turnover, staff vacancies

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Increasing currently low salaries for correctional officers at state prisons and regional jails could be cost-effective if it reduces turnover, vacancies and excessive overtime pay, a legislative oversight committee on regional jails and corrections concluded during discussions Sunday.

David Farmer, executive director of the state Regional Jail Authority, told the interim committee Sunday that the agency paid $6.9 million in overtime during the 2016-17 budget year, as officers had to work mandatory overtime to make up for vacancies on staff.

House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, estimated that amount of money would cover a starting salary of $30,000 and benefits for 172 correctional officers — which would amount to an increase of more than $5,000 over the current starting salary.

Currently, the regional jails have more than 200 unfilled correctional officer positions.

“If we were paying a more competitive rate, the odds are we could cut into that overtime figure,” Shott said.

Last month, Joseph Tyree, newly hired state director of correctional recruiting, told the same committee he believes issues with high turnover and officer vacancies would be resolved if the starting salary were raised to the $30,000-$32,000 range, with proportional increases for current staff.

Farmer said Sunday that his survey of correctional officer salaries for county jails in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland found starting salaries ranging from $31,000 to $49,900.

“It has to be a positive. We know that,” he said of raising regional jail salaries.

Likewise, Division of Corrections acting deputy commissioner Paul Simmons noted Sunday that Corrections has a 35 percent turnover rate for correctional officers. By comparison, Delaware, with a mid-range starting salary of $31,580, has a turnover rate under 8 percent, and Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest starting salary of $51,365, has a rate of just over 4 percent.

Delegate Shirley Love, D-Fayette, asked Farmer if he believed staff shortages and mandatory overtime contributed to the recent “walk away” escape of a South Central Regional Jail inmate.

While noting the State Police investigation is ongoing, Farmer said, “Some of the staff is inexperienced. They’re working 16-hour shifts. It would have to have some effect.”

On Friday, three corrections officers were cited on misdemeanor charges of aiding escape, including one who told investigators she mistook the inmate for a jail counselor.

Committee members Sunday discussed putting an item on the agenda for January interim meetings, the last before the 2018 regular session begins Jan. 10, in support of salary increases.

One issue to be resolved is that the regional jail system is funded through per-diem payments by counties to house inmates, and Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, requested a timetable on when bonds issued to build 10 jails around the state will be paid off, potentially freeing funds for pay raises.

“It would be nice if the governor would recognize this, too, and have some input,” Love said of potential legislation to authorize pay raises. “With the right kind of help at the executive level, it can happen.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304 348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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