LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state prison workers union announced an agreement Friday on wage hikes and a new pay structure aimed at resolving staffing problems in Nebraska prisons.

The long-sought changes target high turnover rates and hiring difficulties in the overcrowded and understaffed prison system. The plan includes an increase in starting wages, plus step increases for employees who remain on the job for designated amounts of time.

“This deal will help put corrections on the right path to address the staffing crisis in our facilities and help us retain valuable employees,” said Mike Chipman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“With this deal, our members will for the first time in decades be able to advance though a step pay plan,” he said. “This will encourage people to make corrections a long-term career choice and reverse the trend in retention, which is the most important need for staffing.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts thanked the state and union officials for coming together on the plan, which is estimated to cost the state $2.3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30 and $5.7 million in the following fiscal year.

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“This new agreement underscores our ongoing commitment to the dedicated men and women who tirelessly work in protective services to keep the public safe around the clock,” he said.

The agreement drew praise from State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the Judiciary Committee chairman, who recently called for raising prison employees’ wages to help the state compete in a tight labor market.

“It looks like we’ve taken an important step toward solving the recruiting and retention issues of security staff,” he said, noting that understaffing has been one of the biggest problems in Nebraska prisons. “Hopefully, the agreement will allow the state to be more competitive.”

Jason Jackson, the governor’s chief human resources officer and Department of Administrative Services director, said the deal should put state jobs on par with county corrections positions. Currently, many state corrections employees are being lured away by higher-paying jobs in county jails. Douglas and Sarpy Counties pay about $3 more per hour than the state.

Shortages of security workers have forced corrections officials to declare “staffing emergencies” at some prisons. The declaration allows the agency to impose 12-hour shifts. The agency also has used mandatory overtime to fill shifts, an unpopular practice that can wreak havoc with employees’ personal lives.

At times, agency officials have canceled family visitation, recreation time and rehabilitation programs to cope with staff shortages. Such actions increase frustration levels among prisoners and make it more difficult for them to complete the programs needed to be released on parole.

The agreement includes:

Starting wage increases.

  • Corrections corporals, unit caseworkers and sergeants will get wage increases on Jan. 20. New hire rates for corporals and caseworkers will be $20 per hour, up from $18.44 currently. Sergeants will get $24 an hour, up from $20.60. That’s still less than county jobs, but workers will get the chance for step increases if they stay on the job.

Step increases.

  • Starting July 1, the same three groups of workers will get raises based on their length of time in the job and on having satisfactory job reviews. Each step will add $1 to the workers’ hourly pay. Employees can move up a step each year for seven years.

Shift changes.

  • Corrections officials will be able to use 12-hour shifts at high-security prisons without having to declare an emergency. The longer shifts will be limited to 70% of positions. Others will work eight- or 10-hour shifts.

Bonuses.

  • The state can provide annual bonuses of up to 10% of base wages to employees at high-security prisons.

Hiring flexibility.

  • New hires coming from other corrections departments, law enforcement or the military can start at a pay step above the usual starting level, based on their years of experience.

The FOP represents corrections officers in the State Department of Correctional Services and safety and security specialists working at the state psychiatric hospitals and Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The agreement is subject to a ratification vote by union members.