LINCOLN — Carla Jorgens says that the low pay and constant overtime at her job at the State Penitentiary is wearing her out.
Her normal shift, supervising inmates who work in the prison kitchen, is from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m., but at least twice a week, she’s required — often on short notice — to stay and work several more hours. She’s worked up to 62 hours a week in recent months, and 52 last week.
She makes $19.37 an hour after 19 years on the job, which is about $1 more than the new employees she trains, and about $10 an hour less than she would earn if she worked just down the road at the Lancaster County Jail. Next month, she’s transferring to a job at another state prison that doesn’t have a staff shortage and that houses lower-risk inmates.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
“I love my job,” said the 55-year-old, who is also a caretaker for two elderly parents. “But I can’t physically meet the demands they’re putting on me.”
Jorgens is part of the bargaining team for a new union selected last year to represent corrections security staff.
Hopes were high that the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, unlike the previous corrections union, could negotiate a better deal on salaries, and maybe more importantly, restore regular salary increases for years of service.
That would eliminate a complaint prison employees have had for years — that a new employee gets the exact same pay as someone with several years of experience.
But last week, with the state and union about $1.60 an hour apart in negotiations and differing on the step raise issue, the two parties declared an impasse. A state labor court, the Commission on Industrial Relations, will now resolve their differences, which could take months.
State officials say that if you compare wages paid in Nebraska with other states of similar size, prison workers here are paid better wages. But union officials maintain that wages should be compared with county jails in the state, which are luring away state prison employees.
Union officials, gathered around a table in a mostly empty labor hall on a snowy night in Lincoln, said they’re discouraged and fear that corrections officers who were waiting for a better deal will now quit.
“They say if the state doesn’t fix this, they’re gone,” Jorgens said.
Staffing issues have plagued state prisons for several years, especially at the rural Tecumseh State Prison and, more recently, the medium-maximum-security State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Dozens of posts are vacant, and existing personnel are sometimes required to stay and work a second eight-hour shift.
Some employees work 16-hour shifts three to four times a week, union officials said.
“Mandatory overtime,” as it is called, creates morale problems, they say, along with fatigue. Workers often volunteer for the overtime on days that are convenient to avoid being “mandatoried” on days when it isn’t convenient, such as when children have ballgames or a birthday.
“You can spend more time here than at home,” Jorgens said as she stood outside the State Penitentiary. “But I have to go home. I have other obligations.”
Turnover of corrections officers, corporals and caseworkers declined slightly in state prisons last year, which state officials attributed to recent bonuses and safer working conditions.
But turnover of such workers was still high, at 31 percent, about double the ideal rate, and the state spent a record $13.3 million on overtime to ensure that all posts were filled on every shift, an absolute necessity for guarding inmates.
Union officials argue that if prison security staff were paid better, and rewarded for longevity, the state would save millions in those costs, as well as expenses for training new employees, which is about $6,000 per new officer.
One key state senator, Steve Lathrop of Omaha, agreed.
“If corrections wants to resolve their staffing issues, they have to pay more,” he said. “They don’t have a pay scale (now) to attract and keep the people they need.”
One big issue in the bargaining impasse was who Nebraska corrections officers should be compared with.
The state says state law calls for using nearby states with comparable facilities and budgets as a comparison.
One comparable state, Kansas, starts its corrections officers at $15.75 an hour, lower than Nebraska’s $16.99, while another state, Iowa, starts its officers at $19.15.
But Nebraska now starts new employees at the higher rank of corporal, which pays $18.43 an hour, at all but one prison in the state (the Omaha Correctional Center).
That puts Nebraska’s corporal starting wage 9.5 percent higher than the eight comparable states used in the negotiations, corrections spokeswoman Laura Strimple said.
But Fraternal Order of Police officials say it makes more sense to compare wages paid at Nebraska prisons with those paid by the Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy County Jails, the facilities they say are stealing away experienced state corrections workers.
Lancaster County, which is in the process of hiring away two state prison workers, starts corrections officers at $19.37 an hour. But after a year, the wage rises to $21.43, which is $2 more an hour than the state pays. And merit raises after that allow the salary to top out at $28.66 an hour after nine years of service.
Douglas County recently increased its starting wage by almost $4 to $21.25 an hour.
The state’s final salary offer to the union was a 2 percent raise and a 0.3 percent merit raise, which would increase corporal pay to $18.86 an hour in July. Union officials, whose last offer was $20.24 an hour, turned down the state. They said their deal included giving up a holiday and surrendering some bargaining rights concerning health insurance.
Jorgens said she is aware that she would be earning almost $10 more an hour if she worked for Lancaster County instead of the state. But the State Penitentiary, she said, “is home.”
Her eyes reddened when she discussed filing her notice that she was leaving her current job for a new post at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln.
“Nobody is going to get rich doing this job,” she said. “But if you want to fix the staffing issues, you have to put in an incentive to do that.”