Scott Frakes

Corrections Director Scott Frakes

LINCOLN — After 12 years as a corrections officer for the state, Varyl Doehring turned in his gear and retired this year.

At age 66, he’d grown tired of the grueling workload that required up to four 16-hour shifts in a week, the lackluster pay and the constant turnover of his colleagues, who left for better-paying jobs with less risk of being punched or spit on.

Doehring said he can’t blame his comrades for leaving the Lincoln Correctional Center. Just down the road, the nearly new Lancaster County Corrections Center pays about $1.50 more an hour for new hires, and the gap increases to nearly $5 an hour after one year. And the county doesn’t require the constant and sometimes mandatory overtime shifts needed at the state prison to fill in vacant posts.

When his warden asked what might solve the state’s long-lingering staffing problems, Doehring offered several ideas. But the bottom line, he said, was “a whole bunch more money” for higher salaries and raises for staying on the job.

“But the problem we’re going to have is, no matter how much you pay, if you don’t slow down the mandatory overtime, you’ll still have people quit,” he said. “You’re kind of in a circle you can’t get out of.”

The state has taken several steps to address staff turnover, giving 7 percent pay increases over the past 18 months to those who guard inmates in the Nebraska state prison system, as well as bonuses and additional pay increases at the two prisons with the worst staffing issues.

Despite those measures, turnover for such workers rose to the highest in recent memory, 34 percent, up from 31 percent in 2016. Overtime expenses are also on pace to eclipse the $9.3 million spent during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Staffing problems have plagued the state’s troubled prison system, which now faces a federal civil rights lawsuit over overcrowded cells. Corrections officers and union officials have consistently complained that low pay and the lack of pay increases for years of service have created a vicious cycle of high staff turnover and an exodus of experienced workers. It’s wrong, they maintain, to pay a newly hired officer the same as someone who has put in five or 10 years.

This year, a state senator who has several prisons in her district proposed giving state corrections whatever the agency needed to raise the wages of front-line staff. But, amid a budget crunch, the bill is stalled. Meanwhile, competing law enforcement agencies that offer better pay report they’re enjoying a steady stream of trained applicants from the state prison system.

While frustrated staff, like Doehring, say it’s not enough, the starting wage for a state corrections officer has risen from $15.15 in 2014 to $16.74 today, due in part to extra steps taken by the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketts, but also due to yearly wage increases negotiated by the state employees union. To further enhance the starting salary, corrections now hires most new security workers at a higher rank, corporal, which pays $18.16 an hour.

Recently, corrections has tried another new approach to fill posts at the Tecumseh State Prison, the site of two deadly prison riots in the past three years. Ten corrections officers hired in Omaha have been bused 120 miles each day to and from Tecumseh, on the clock and in taxpayer-paid vans, to help ease the staff shortage at the rural prison.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes, in a recent interview, said the van program is helping, and is being expanded to 40 officers for Tecumseh. But his stated goal of reducing turnover to less than 20 percent is moving in the wrong direction.

So what can the state do?

Pay increases, Frakes said, are only part of the answer. Past disturbances and assaults on staff affect retention. In addition, he said potential employees seem to be turning away from jobs in public service such as prison and police work, which come with unpredictable hours and some risk.

The state — unlike many agencies it competes with for workers — does not provide pay increases tied to years of service. But Frakes said that steps taken in October are serving as a “pilot” project to see if they should be adopted departmentwide. The steps included a $2,500 bonus for new employees at Tecumseh and the State Penitentiary in Lincoln if they complete a year on the job, and pay increases for longevity ranging from a 2.5 percent raise for workers with one to three years of experience up to 10 percent for those with 10 years or more of service.

Meanwhile, he urged corrections officers to “hang in there” and know they are doing important work.

“We’re just going to continue to adopt strategies that seem to make sense,” Frakes said. “If they’re working well, we will continue to use them.”

A survey by The World-Herald of state and county corrections departments indicates that Nebraska is not the only agency struggling to hire and retain corrections officers. But agencies that reported few staffing issues had a common refrain: all paid significantly higher wages, and most were luring away state workers, in part, because of it.

Starting pay for corrections officers

Jurisdiction Pay per hour Notes
Nebraska $16.74 Most new officers are hired as corporals at $18.16 per hour
Iowa $19.32
South Dakota $15.50 $16.50 per hour on weekends
Kansas $14.66 $15.75 at a rural prison in El Dorado
Oklahoma $12.78
Douglas County $17.35
Sarpy County $20.38
Lancaster County $18.30
Pottawattamie County $20.94

The states of Kansas, South Dakota and Oklahoma all reported high turnover rates of up to 29 percent and challenges with filling posts. In Nebraska, Douglas County corrections is contemplating salary increases to address a chronic shortage of security staff, as are Kansas and Oklahoma.

But the State of Iowa, as well as Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, reported few issues with hiring. All have higher starting wages than state positions in Nebraska, up to $3.50 per hour higher.

In Iowa, the starting wage is $19.32 an hour for a corrections officer, about $2.50 more than Nebraska, and the turnover rate for corrections officers is 8 percent, about one-fourth Nebraska’s rate. The Hawkeye State, unlike Nebraska, also provides pay increases for its new officers after six months, and then additional longevity raises annually until they reach the top of their pay range.

At the Sarpy County Jail, new corrections officers are paid $20.38 an hour, about $3.50 an hour more than newbies at state prisons.

The result? When Sarpy County began transitioning its jail staff from deputy sheriffs to corrections officers last year, 13 of the first 15 officers hired came from state corrections. The county had 249 applicants for the 15 posts.

Lancaster County starts its corrections officers at $18.30 per hour — only $1.56 higher than the state’s starting pay and only a few cents higher than the state’s starting pay for new corporals. But that hourly wage jumps to $19.28 after six months and $21.22 after a year — an annual salary of $44,138, nearly $10,000 more than a state corrections officer and about $6,800 more than a state corrections corporal. After 12 years, a Lancaster County jailer would earn more than $27 an hour under Lancaster County’s salary hikes for longevity and merit, or about $56,000.

The longevity pay hikes are a key difference between the county and the state, said Brad Johnson, director of the Lancaster County Department of Corrections. “That’s one of the places they get hurt,” he said.

A frustrated State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who oversees the state budget as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, after hearing the latest figures last month, that corrections’ long-running problems with high turnover “may not be fixable.”

While the state doesn’t have more money right now to devote to corrections officer pay, Stinner said that a legislative oversight committee is looking into the issue. He said he also wants to see if raises or step increases for longevity are included in the new contract with the state employees union, which will be negotiated later this year.

The senator said the governor and corrections have made attempts to resolve the problem, but the state needs to “relook and rethink” its approach.

Doehring, the recently retired corrections officer, said he’s heard such talk before. The simple solution is to just reward workers who stay, so fewer workers leave, there’s less overtime and people can rest and see their families.

“Right now, you have people so under par due to their exhaustion level that you’re going to be lucky if someone isn’t hurt or killed,” he said. “When you’re beyond exhausted, you’re not going to do the best you can.”

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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