LINCOLN — State government is struggling to find workers for numerous jobs, forcing increased overtime costs and prompting measures including hiring bonuses, job fairs and increased advertising to lure applicants.

The shortages in some areas, such as the Department of Corrections and the Nebraska State Patrol, mirror a national trend in the decline of applicants for law enforcement jobs that require demanding hours and some risk.

But Nebraska has also had trouble filling some lower-skilled jobs, such as food service workers, custodians and security workers at state veterans homes, youth rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities and others that are staffed 24 hours a day.

A month ago, admissions to the newly opened Central Nebraska Veterans Home in Kearney were temporarily suspended because of a lack of workers to prepare meals. At the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney, a private security firm was recently hired to fill vacant posts there.

The Nebraska State Patrol’s level of sworn officers is near its lowest level since the 1990s.

And at corrections, which has the hardest time filling posts, overtime expenses are at a record level, and turnover of security posts, while slightly down from a year ago, is still about 30%, roughly twice what is ideal.

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State officials say that problems are isolated and that they, like all employers across Nebraska, face problems finding workers because of low unemployment — 3.1% — and a statewide shortage of available labor. But representatives of two state unions say the problem demands action, and higher starting pay and more rewards for longevity.

Justin Hubly of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the state’s largest employee union, and Mike Chipman, who heads the union that represents corrections officers and other security workers, said higher wages would fill now-vacant positions. A kitchen assistant at Kearney, for instance, is paid $10.97 per hour, a food service cook gets $11.79 per hour and an entry-level corrections corporal gets $18.44 an hour, nearly $2 an hour less than is paid for a lower-level officer at the Douglas County Jail.

“I don’t think it’s a workforce shortage, it’s wage shortage — if you pay people more, they’ll come to work,” Hubly said. He used the word “crisis” to describe the difficulty in hiring custodians, food service staff and workers at the state’s 24-hour facilities.

He pointed to the new veterans home in Kearney, which opened in January but still isn’t filled to capacity. As of last week, the admission freeze had been lifted, but the 225-bed facility still had 81 vacant beds and a waiting list of 225 veterans — both higher numbers than a month ago.

“You build this beautiful facility in Kearney, but then you can’t staff the place? That seems so penny wise and pound foolish,” Hubly said.

But the head of the agency that oversees state personnel, as well as a spokesman for the State Department of Veteran Services, said that progress is being made, and that overall, the state is getting plenty of applicants.

At the Kearney veterans home, eight new kitchen workers were added recently, and nine more will be added in a couple of weeks, according to spokesman Holden Armstrong. Publicity about the shortage of kitchen help was actually a good thing, he said, because it spawned more applications.

“It was free advertising,” Armstrong said. He pointed out that the facility always intended to slowly fill its beds, as staff hiring allowed, and that it was actually ahead of schedule in admissions.

Jason Jackson, the head of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, an agency that includes state personnel, said there have been challenges filling specific jobs in some agencies, particularly in rural areas and in law enforcement-related jobs. But generally, the state is doing well in hiring new employees, he said. State benefits are still attractive, Jackson said, and in July, 2% wage increases, and 0.3% raises for merit, were granted in the new state labor contract.

“On average, we get 10,000 applications to work every month, and we hire about 350,” he said. “The state is viewed as an employer of choice, and we have a very healthy applicant pool.”

So what problems do workforce shortages cause?

Shortages raise the cost of government. The shortage of staff at state prisons required a record $15 million in overtime costs this past year, about three times as much as a decade ago. The state, according to one estimate, could save $13,000 a year for every full-time job it fills by avoiding overtime as well as training costs for a new hire.

Shortages also cause a vicious cycle in which existing workers have to work more and more overtime to fill vacant posts, but that wears them out, causing them to quit, which creates a vacancy and the need for more and more overtime.

“This downward spiral continues,” stated the annual report released last week by the State Legislature’s Inspector General for Corrections, Doug Koebernick. He called on Gov. Pete Ricketts to quickly form a task force to address the shortages in state prisons.

Lack of staff also prompts prisons to shut down inmate activities, like rehabilitation programs, recreation time and visits to the library, which can raise tensions inside state prisons. Facilities are already dealing with overcrowding, holding about 1,900 more inmates than design capacity. If staff is short, some duties, like cell searches, suffer.

The patrol now has 432 sworn troopers, which, though an increase from 424 in October, is still among the lowest levels since the 1990s.

There are 27 vacancies for youth security specialists at the 140-year-old Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney. The facility, despite the erection of a $700,000 fence around it this summer, has seen a rash of escapes in recent weeks. Just recently, a private security firm was hired to backstop state workers, who were logging multiple overtime shifts each week.

“It’s an embarrassment for the institution,” said a longtime staffer, who spoke on condition of not being named because of job concerns. “This used to be a great place to go to work.”

Why aren’t people applying and staying in state jobs?

Nationally, there’s been a downturn in applicants for law enforcement-related jobs, such as state troopers and corrections officers. Several reasons have been cited, from the dangerous type of work, to the availability of other jobs in a strong economy, to the intense scrutiny police get these days.

At the Nebraska State Patrol, a training camp used to attract 700 to 1,000 applicants back in the 1980s. That number fell to about 350 to 400 by 2014 but, due to increased recruiting efforts, slightly rose this past year to 432 applicants.

State prisons across the country face difficulty in hiring officers. In recent months, Kansas, Missouri, Wyoming and South Carolina have joined the ranks of agencies using phrases like “emergency” or “jeopardizing prison safety” to describe worker shortages.

In Nebraska, state union officials had complained that the lack of raises for merit and longevity in corrections was causing staff to leave in favor of other jobs that provided such salary increases. The policy meant that a newly hired state employee was getting the same pay as a veteran employee.

The state took a big step this summer when it agreed to institute “merit” raises for new and existing correctional officers, corporals and sergeants, giving them a chance to up their pay by 12.5% over 10 years. But state union officials said such incentives need to be offered to other state workers as well.

Officials differed on whether younger workers, like millennials, are attracted to state jobs. Jackson said that the percentage of young workers ages 25 to 34 in state government is about 21%, which mirrors the state’s population mix. Millennials, he added, tend to seek out jobs that “make a difference,” and public service jobs do that.

But Frakes, the state’s prison chief, said many younger workers don’t like the “rules-driven” jobs like the quasi-military jobs in a prison. Plus, they want a guarantee of time off, which can’t always happen in a prison that’s short of workers and requires staff to work overtime, sometimes with little warning.

What’s being tried to attract more workers?

Job fairs, more advertising and social media posts. There were career fairs this weekend at both Geneva and Kearney to fill vacancies at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers there. And job fairs were held recently at two other facilities short of workers, the State Penitentiary and Lincoln Regional Center. The fairs are being held on weekends to make them more accessible, and involve frontline workers to better explain the work. They seem to help — the Regional Center job fair led to 25 applicants, and job offers to 18.

Twenty months ago, the state granted 20% wage hikes for certified nursing assistants who work at state veterans home, a move that has resolved a worker shortage there, according to a state spokesman.

The State Patrol began conducting two training camps this year, instead of one, in hopes of not losing recruits to other jobs while they waited for state training to begin. The patrol is also using more focused recruiting efforts — targeting former military personnel and others most likely to stick with law enforcement work — and increased pay for recruits while they’re undergoing training.

Patrol spokesman Cody Thomas said that the agency is on track for its most successful recruitment year since 2015, with 24 new troopers expected to gain their badge this year.

On top of the new merit raises, corrections has offered bonuses for new hires in recent years, and bonuses for employees who recruit a new worker. But results have been mixed. Of new hires offered $2,500 bonuses in 2017, only 33% are still on the job, according to the inspector general’s recent report. In April, $3,000 hiring bonuses were offered to the first 100 new employees at selected prisons. But five months later, the bonus hasn’t lured a full 100 takers. Jackson and Frakes both said it’s too early to tell whether this round of bonuses will be successful.

Frakes said that corrections is always looking for new ways to hire workers, and particularly to keep them from leaving — the agency leads the state in turnover of workers in their first 90 days. He said new tools are being employed to better identify job candidates who “fit” and will remain on the job. Frontline staff is also being incorporated into training so that recruits get a better taste of the job ahead.

“Until you go to work in a prison, you really can’t know what it’s like to work in a prison,” Frakes said. “That’s on us to better expose recruits to it.”

What’s next?

While Chipman — who heads the Fraternal Order of Police union that represents security staff at state prisons, regional centers and YRTCs — said the recent merit increases were a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. The state, he said, should raise starting salaries to make them more competitive with county jails in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

While the state just inked a new contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, it could reopen talks and raise wages. Wisconsin, for example, recently granted a temporary, $5-an-hour raise to combat its prison workforce shortages, and Nebraska, in the past, has bumped up salaries at prisons having the worst workforce issues.

Hubly, whose union represents state workers who don’t do security work, said that step increases for longevity would also help retain and reward those workers.

Jackson said the state keeps a close eye on wages to make sure they’re comparable, and will continue to evaluate that. “We want Nebraska to be competitive and be an employer of choice,” he said.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who has led legislative investigations into problems at state prisons and at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, said there is a common thread to their struggles — staff shortages required workers to work excessive overtime, often overtime ordered at the last minute, and services and worker performance suffered. Higher wages, he said, are needed to get facilities fully staffed.

“You can’t change the culture when you’re working mandatory overtime,” Lathrop said.

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of Nebraska State Patrol applicants in the most recent year. 

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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