LINCOLN — State corrections workers, who have argued for years that low pay was causing low morale and high turnover of staff at state prisons, now have something to celebrate.

On Wednesday, the state and the union that represents security staff at prisons and other state facilities announced a new contract that will grant immediate raises of up to 12.5% for some veteran staff and will give regular “merit raises” as incentives for workers to remain employed with the state.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said the new contract “shows how much we value” staff who work at state prisons and state mental health and youth rehabilitation facilities.

“The plan builds on the great work (Corrections) Director (Scott) Frakes and his team have been doing to reduce turnover and build the team we need to keep people safe,” Ricketts said in a press release.

Matt Barrall, acting state director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that the salary increases should "stop a lot of the bleeding" in terms of high staff turnover within state prisons. 

"The state finally saw the potential for disaster," Barrall said. "They saw there was a strong possibility (turnover) would skyrocket if a compromise was not reached with the employees."

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who introduced a bill to prohibit mandatory overtime for prison staff, said the new contract has brought “a sense of hope” to corrections employees that “has been missing for a long time.”

In recent months, turnover of front-line corrections workers has exceeded 30%, which officers blamed on low pay and constant overtime requirements, as well as higher pay and better working conditions at county jails in Nebraska. Staffers said the pay and overtime issues led to burnout, low morale and increased danger for prison workers.

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The state and the union had declared an impasse in contract negotiations in January, then resumed negotiations after a state labor court ruled that raises for most corrections workers weren’t warranted based on prison salaries in comparable states — comparables that were unsuccessfully challenged by the union.

Young said the resumed negotiations resulted in the “first meaningful discussions” of how to address the “staffing crisis” in state prisons.

The contract announced Wednesday was a big increase from what had been the state’s final offer, which was a 2% base raise in salary plus a .3% merit increase.

The new terms:

  • New corrections officers will receive 2.5% merit increases for a “satisfactory” performance after years one, three, five, seven and 10 on the job.
  • In July, current officers, corporals and sergeants will get wage increases based on their years of service. For example, an employee with 10 years of service or more will receive a 12.5% increase.
  • The state will get the discretion of using 12-hour shifts (rather than 8-hour shifts) at high-security men’s facilities on up to 50% of all posts. The Governor’s Office said that should “help create a safer environment for corrections officers and reduce overtime” expenses. Some corrections officers have had to work multiple 16-hour shifts per week to fill vacant posts in recent months, union officials have said.

Young said that, on average, security staff at state prisons will see raises averaging 7% to 11% over the next two years, and that security workers at state regional centers and youth rehab facilities — which are also seeing staffing shortages — will get 5.7% to 15% raises.

“They deserve every penny of it,” Young said.

In January, the Corrections Department announced that annual staff turnover at the agency had declined for the first time since 2010. But the decline was a small one, from 34% of security staff to 31%.

Frakes said the new contract recognized the “great sacrifices” made by his staff and “recognizes their experience and performance.”

The union, which corrections workers switched to last year, represents 1,130 prison staffers and about 460 others who work at state regional centers and at youth rehabilitation and treatment centers in Kearney and Geneva.