LINCOLN — State officials announced two pay initiatives Monday aimed at bringing down overtime hours and employee turnover at two of Nebraska’s most-troubled prisons.
The measures address what has been described as “a significant staffing crisis” in the prison system, one that makes other reforms difficult to accomplish.
Scott Frakes, the state correctional services director, said the first initiative seeks to reduce manadatory overtime hours by filling job vacancies.
The state will pay $2,500 recruiting bonuses to the first 100 people hired through Nov. 17 to work at the Tecumseh State Prison or the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
The second initiative offers a form of longevity pay aimed at reducing staff turnover at the Tecumseh facility, Frakes said.
Employees will be eligible for merit pay increases based on their years of service at Tecumseh and on satisfactory job performance.
“We are rewarding the commitment of our (Tecumseh) teammates and incentivizing becoming a part of the (Tecumseh) team,” Frakes said.
Staffing problems have been an ongoing challenge for Nebraska’s overcrowded prison system.
Last month, the inspector general of the state correctional system called the levels of overtime and turnover a significant crisis with broad impacts.
“When correctional employees work high amounts of overtime, (low) morale, burnout, complacency and fatigue can take place, and mistakes or errors on the job can be made,” said Inspector General Doug Koebernick.
On Monday, Frakes sounded a similar note.
The Tecumseh facility, in particular, has struggled with hiring and keeping staff ever since it opened in 2001.
Currently, 25 percent of Tecumseh’s protective services positions are vacant, he said. Protective services positions include corrections officers, corporals and sergeants, plus unit caseworkers.
The penitentiary also has seen a spike in turnover recently.
“We reached the point this summer at Tecumseh where the number of vacant positions has made it challenging, not impossible, but challenging to operate the facility in the way that I want to be able to operate it,” he said.
Frakes said his goal is to bring turnover for protective services employees down below 20 percent and to fill at least two-thirds of the vacancies at Tecumseh.
He anticipates that officials will know within three months if the efforts have paid off.
“I expect to see a significant difference,” he said.
State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who chairs the Legislature’s Justice System Special Oversight Committee, said the measures seem to be a reasonable approach to addressing prison staffing problems.
“Something needs to be done. That’s pretty clear,” she said. “Whether it will solve the problem or not, I don’t know but I commend Director Frakes for doing something.”
Lawmakers may get an indication of how well the initiatives are working when the oversight committee meets on Oct. 20.
Frakes said he chose the particular approaches after talking with people experienced in recruiting and retaining employees and with corrections employees and representatives of the main state employees union.
He said surveys of corrections employees have shown that longevity pay, sometimes called a step plan, is a top concern.
Currently, when the state provides pay raises, the increases go to every employee in a certain job classification. That means a 10-year employee makes the same as the newly hired ones.
Under the new initiative, an employee who has worked one to three years at Tecumseh will get a 2.5 percent boost in pay, climbing to 10 percent for employees with more than 10 years of service.
Frakes said he understands that employees at other prisons might be unhappy at not being eligible for longevity pay. But he said the agency has to set priorities.
“This is very specific to a need that is not new,” he said.
He also said all corrections employees will benefit from the initiatives. Currently, employees from other prisons are being called on to fill shifts at Tecumseh.
Frakes said he expects to pay for the new initiatives within his current budget by reducing overtime.
Every vacancy filled saves the agency $13,000 in overtime, he said. Using overtime to fill all required shifts at Tecumseh costs nearly $1 million more than if those hours were filled by full-time employees.
Mandatory overtime hours also take a toll on employees and add to turnover.
The inspector general’s report showed that overtime in corrections averaged 33,202 hours per month during the first half of 2017. That was up 4.3 percent compared with last year and 50.5 percent compared with 2014.
Overtime costs totaled nearly $9.3 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from $3.3 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011.