Scott Frakes

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes 

LINCOLN — State prison officials are planning a new strategy to stem high turnover among corrections officers and others — $500 retention bonuses.

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes announced Tuesday that the one-time bonuses will be paid on Sept. 14 to about 1,000 staff members in “high turnover/high vacancy positions.”

Those positions include front-line security workers, food service specialists, licensed practical nurses and workers in chemical dependency and mental health treatment. The bonuses are for workers hired before Jan. 1, 2016.

Frakes, in a memo to employees, said that although he would prefer to give bonuses to all 2,300 Corrections Department employees, the $500 bonuses were a way to make an immediate impact.

“These bonuses are a way to recognize the challenges high turnover presents until we can negotiate a (labor) contract to address compensation needs long term,” he wrote.

State lawmakers have been demanding action for months to address high turnover and the large number of vacant prison jobs. That, according to state figures, has translated into a situation in which corrections officers work an average of 16 hours of overtime a week to cover shifts.

Concerns about high turnover have grown in recent weeks after disturbances at state prisons sent several staff members to hospitals with injuries.

The Legislature allocated an extra $1.5 million this spring to address the staffing problems, but Department of Corrections officials balked initially at using the money for bonuses. Instead, the department launched several other initiatives to improve training and wellness and to provide stipends for some employees who commute long distances to work. The department also did a “culture study” of its employees.

State lawmakers and the union that represents corrections workers, however, have complained that those steps were not enough and that changes could not wait.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said Tuesday that while the new bonuses are a step in the right direction, they are a “token” amount and much more needs to be done.

“I think (Frakes) found out what he was doing wasn’t working, so I think he went back to what the Legislature originally intended,” Marvin said.

Turnover of security and housing unit staff was nearly 31 percent in 2015, according to Corrections Department spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith. That compared to about 19 percent in 2010.

Union officials and others have blamed the turnover on the overtime burden as well as low pay and lack of raises for longevity. The starting wage for new state corrections officers is $15.86 per hour, which is less than the pay of county jailers in Omaha ($17.35 an hour) and Lincoln ($17.85), and corrections officers in Iowa ($18.89).

Supporters of prison staff held a demonstration on Saturday asking for better pay and better working conditions, and on Monday, a small group demonstrated for better rehabilitation programming for inmates.

A special committee of the Nebraska Legislature is scheduled to hear testimony today concerning staffing problems in the state prison system.

Frakes is scheduled to discuss a recent study of staffing needs, as well as the outbreak of assaults on staff.

Last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts asked the union to begin talks on the department’s staffing problems. Those talks are scheduled to begin Friday.

Ricketts, in the Corrections Department’s press release on Tuesday, said he anticipates taking further steps when the department submits its biennial budget request in September.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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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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