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Higher pay sought for W.Va. correctional officers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A plan to increase salaries and benefits for correctional officers and support staff in West Virginia would cost the state nearly $69 million over the next three years, but officials say they believe the benefits ultimately would outweigh the costs.

Representatives of the Department of Corrections, the Regional Jail Authority and the Division of Juvenile Services recommended across-the-board pay increases and increases in base salaries and more benefits for correctional officers and staff during a meeting Monday of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Jim Rubenstein, commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Corrections and deputy cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said low salaries and high turnover are creating a “vicious cycle” in prisons and jails.

Rubenstein said all three departments have seen high turnover rates and vacancies. In 2014 the corrections department had a turnover rate of 24.2 percent while the jail authority had a turnover rate of 48.8 percent.

Juvenile services saw a turnover rate of 22.4 percent, he said.

Nearly half of those who left cited low wages as the reason for departure, Rubenstein said. About half of those who left had worked in their positions for less than a year.

The agencies also struggle to fill some of those vacant positions. Rubenstein said the corrections department has a vacancy rate of 11.3 percent, the jail authority of 8.5 percent and the juvenile services of 23.5 percent. Those vacancies contribute to massive amounts of overtime being paid to employees, severe burnout, safety issues and ultimately resignations, he said.

“It really is a vicious cycle,” Rubenstein said. “We’re all in the same boat when it comes to these issues.”

To combat those problems, Rubenstein proposed across-the-board $2,000 salary increases and to increase base salaries for incoming positions by $2,000. Officials also are asking for a longevity pay plan which would annually raise salaries during the first five years of employment and an educational reimbursement plan which would cover tuition, fees and materials costs for employees so long as they pledged one month of employment for every credit hour covered.

Rubenstein said the salary increases would cost the state about $10.2 million in the first year or about 22.4 million over three years. The increase in base pay would cost about $10.2 million the first year or $30.7 million over three years.

Longevity pay would cost the state about $11 million over three years and Rubenstein estimated the educational cost reimbursement plan, which he said would affect about 400 employees a year, would cost about $1.6 million a year.

Rubenstein said these proposals have not been presented to the governor’s office or to the budget office. The committee took no action Monday.

Joe Delong, executive director of the Regional Jail Authority, said his department has seen some success and cost savings by adding additional correctional officers to facilities, allowing the agency to lower the cost of overtime and to alleviate some employee burnout.

Delong said those results came even though the program was only fully implemented at one correctional facility and is slowly being introduced at other facilities.

“It is our belief that once we have this fully implemented, we are going to save somewhere between $2-3 million even with the addition of hundreds of positions,” he said.

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