The State of Nebraska delivers critical services. But as an employer, the state sometimes has problems with mandatory overtime.

That practice can force too few employees in important jobs to work too many hours, risking the safety of employees and those they serve.

The state knows it needs more hands on deck, and it has the Legislature’s approval to hire them.

A handful of state agencies fall short in the recruitment and retention of employees. New options need to be explored, and lawmakers should be open to new and unusual approaches.

Yet in situations that seem to repeat themselves every few years, the state has failed to do what is necessary to hire needed help.

One example came to light with the poor treatment of some developmentally disabled patients at the Beatrice State Developmental Center. Workers had complained loudly that mandatory overtime was a driving force in staff fatigue.

New employees quit soon after realizing they had little control over their schedules, forcing longtime employees to pick up the slack. This led to burnout and unacceptable treatment of some patients. The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel found a similar problem growing in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

The system recorded a dramatic year-over-year increase in the amount of mandatory overtime prison employees worked. The department spent $4.5 million on overtime in the most recent fiscal year, up 32 percent from the previous year.

This might sound like a win for those employees who wanted the extra hours and pay, but even for them, it is not. It is an increased cost to taxpayers and an increased risk to prison staff and inmates. Prison work, like health care, requires practitioners at the top of their game.

Former prison employees told Hammel that orders to work overtime were made daily at many of the state’s prisons. And where staffing problems are the most troublesome, at the Tecumseh State Prison, the entire night shift often was told to work their shift and the eight hours after.

That’s a dangerous recipe. The roots of the problem seem clear. The state can’t seem to find enough of the prison employees the Legislature says it can hire.

The prison system is authorized to hire about 1,250 corrections officers and caseworkers, roughly the same as in 2006, despite a 17 percent jump in the number of inmates they are guarding.

As of June 30, the system had 159 vacant positions, although prison officials say the number of openings now is about 100. This past week, the prison system said it would seek approval from the Legislature to hire 195 more employees, and it might need them.

Prisoners are staying longer after sentence recalculations. Employee turnover rates also are high: 23 percent at the Tecumseh prison, 20 percent at the women’s prison in York and 17 percent at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Given the number of prison positions going unfilled, officials should look at employee recruitment incentives, possibly even the $15.15-per-hour starting pay for guards. Staffers and state officials say the bigger issue is problems attracting workers to smaller places like Tecumseh, the same complaint heard about Beatrice.

The need to consider the available pool of workers should be a central consideration for the state going forward in any decisions on where to locate new prisons and major public facilities.

The administration and the Legislature also should examine incentives for employee retention, such as college loan payoffs after years of service.

They do not have to cost a lot of money. And it may be possible to scale back the number of new hires to afford such incentives while filling slots and keeping employees. One key to solving the problem of mandatory overtime is showing the employees who show up every day for this difficult work that they are valued.

Get those guards some help before the combination of crowded prisons, mandatory overtime and short staffing comes home to roost.

They aren’t guarding choir boys.

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