LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that the state doesn’t need a new task force to explore the staffing shortages at state prisons but that the Department of Corrections is always open to new strategies to fill vacant posts and reduce high worker turnover.

“If someone has some ideas, I certainly suggest they get them to us or talk to (State Corrections Director) Scott Frakes,” said Ricketts, in his first public comments about a critical state watchdog’s annual report.

That report, issued a week ago, described a continued “downward spiral” in hiring and retention of state prison staff, particularly the officers, corporals and sergeants who guard inmates.

Nebraska spent a record $15 million on overtime to fill vacant posts last year, according to the report, and turnover of security staff, while down slightly, was still roughly 30%, which is about twice the rate considered desirable.

The report, written by Doug Koebernick, the Legislature’s Inspector General for Corrections, recommended that the governor quickly convene a task force of prison officials, corrections workers and human resources professionals to come up with new strategies to hire and retain staff so that the Legislature can consider it soon.

The report cast doubt on whether some current strategies, such as hiring bonuses, are working. It also questioned whether the agency will be able to hire staff for prison expansions that are underway that will add 484 new beds. The state offered hiring bonuses in 2017, but only 33% of those who received those bonuses are still on the job. In April, hiring bonuses were offered to the first 100 new hires, but the state, five months later, still hasn’t found a full 100 takers.

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“Nebraska can hope that the staffing situation will resolve itself in the next year or two, but definite action needs to be taken,” the report says.

Ricketts, questioned after a press conference on national hunting and fishing day, said Corrections has its own “internal” task force that includes experts in the field.

He added that the state has employed a variety of strategies, including some borrowed from the private sector, to deal with a shortage of labor that is a challenge for all employers. The state’s unemployment stands at 3.1%, and state business leaders have labeled the workforce shortage a “crisis” and the No. 1 economic issue for Nebraska.

The governor mentioned not only the hiring and referral bonuses offered by Corrections, but also the busing upward of 70 prison workers a day from Omaha to facilities that have labor shortages. The state’s new labor contract, he added, provided immediate raises of up to 12.5% for some veteran corrections officers. Corrections also has stepped up its advertising of job openings, held hiring fairs and is trying to better target potential applicants who want to make prison work a career.

“We’ve seen some improvement ... but we know we still have more work to do,” Ricketts said.

An Omaha man is now in his fourth week of conducting a weekday vigil outside the Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln. Paul Feilmann has said he’ll keep it up until the governor forms a new committee to look at problems, including prison overcrowding, plaguing Corrections and the state’s youth rehabilitation centers. Ricketts said Monday that he hadn’t talked to Feilmann and didn’t plan to.

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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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