Struggle continues to hire and retain Nebraska prison workers

Billboard outside the Tecumseh Correctional Institution. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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November 9, 2017 - 6:45am

As Nebraska state prison officials scramble to keep employees on the job and locate new recruits, the state Legislature will be advancing proposals to increase pay.

Recruiting students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney during the criminal justice job fair. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Chart compares acceptable employee turnover to rate of departure by protective service workers within the Department of Corrections. The May spike coincides with the Mother's Day riot in fiscal year 2017. (Source: NDCS)

State Senator Anna Wishart (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Governor Pete Ricketts and his department head, advancing their own plans, are expressing doubts whether additional pay is the appropriate incentive.

The problems have been well documented.

Data compiled by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) confirms substantial amounts of overtime have been required to maintain daily operations in the last five years. In the first half of 2017 employees put in 33,000 hours of overtime per month.

$9.3 million was spent on staff overtime in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, triple the amount spent five years earlier. The information was included in the 2017 annual report of the inspector general of the Nebraska Correctional System.

The impact on individual staff has been substantial. An email survey of 600-plus corrections workers, coordinated by State Senator Anna Wishart, found more than 36 percent of responding staff worked ten or more days of overtime in the previous month. A quarter of the staff worked five to nine days of overtime the previous month.

Wishart’s unscientific survey hints turn-over among prison staff may get worse. Asked “are you currently looking for another job?,” more than half the employees replied in the affirmative.

Testifying before the Legislature’s judiciary committee, Wishart said, “It is undeniable after reading through this survey that we have a pay, morale, and leadership issue.”

Wishart found it “startling” corrections does not have comprehensive merit or longevity pay as an incentive for employees. She plans to renew a proposal for “step raises” suggesting it was among “the number one solutions” listed in her survey of employees as something that would keep them on the job longer.

Step increases in salary are based on previous experience without requiring a promotion or upgrade in rank. Salary incentives of this sort have not been broadly available to corrections workers in Nebraska for over ten years, according to employee union representatives.

In October, the Department of Corrections introduced longevity and merit incentives available to a limited number of employees. The statement issued referred to the move as “bold, unprecedented strategies to address recruiting challenges.”

Only employees at the Tecumseh Correctional Institution (TCI) can earn the new pay increases based on years of service.  The staff vacancy rate at TCI has hovered at 30 percent for months.


Several veteran corrections employees took the unusual step of testifying. Their employee guidelines mandate they should not make public statements about their work.

Carla Jorgens, a corporal at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, opened her testimony stating, “I am the one that works behind those fences and walls that many of you guys drive by every day. I’m tired and I’m afraid.”

Jorgens stated she sometimes works a ten-hour day only to discover she must work another six hours because the next shift is short-handed, a not uncommon occurrence among the security crew because of short-staffing. She considers it to be a public safety concern.

“Inmates see how much we are being forced to work and they see we are tired,” Jorgens said in a wavering voice.

“So, I am afraid. I am afraid for myself, my co-workers, and the citizens of this state. We are all at risk.”

Brad Kreifels, a sergeant with the department, said NDCS overtime is at times not voluntary.

“I’ve seen people who have refused to work mandatory overtime and were locked in the facility until there are volunteers. When this happens central control officers do not open the door and physically (let you) out of our facility until there are volunteers.”

A complaint filed before the Commission of Industrial Relations by union workers at the Tecumseh facility challenges the legality of working 12-hour shifts, outside of the contract negotiated with the state. A hearing was held in September. A ruling, which could impact policy at all corrections facilities, is not expected before the end of the year.

A second incentive, available to new employees hired in October and November, is paid out in full only after they complete a full year on the job.

Previous incentive programs had mixed results.

In 2016, corrections handed out one-time $500 retention bonuses to “staff members in high turnover/high vacancy positions.”

In a progress report prepared for state senators, corrections officials noted feedback from employees indicated “the bonus was too small in comparison to the time commitment required to earn it, particularly in comparison to working overtime for the same amount of time.”

Of the 951 employees provided the incentive to stay, 18 percent had quit within a year.

Despite offering the incentives last year, Scott Frakes, director of the Department of Corrections, appeared skeptical of raises based on longevity when testifying before the Legislature’s judiciary committee in October.

“When it comes to salary issues, we know it’s a short-term motivator,” Frakes said, adding employees suffer from a “loss of memory” about the employment contract approved in 2016 raising some salaries by seven to nine percent.

“It’s as though nothing has happened. In my mind, a nine percent increase in a twelve-month period is pretty significant.”

Nebraska’s starting wage for a corrections officer, $16 an hour, is according to a report prepared by the corrections’ inspector general, “significantly higher than in neighboring states.”

In the end of the fiscal year review for legislators, the Department of Corrections states it spent $1.5 million dollars specifically aimed at efforts to keep workers on the job. Efforts ranged from the pay bumps and stipends for employees with long commutes to staff training and improved computer systems in the staff training center.

When the Legislature’s judiciary committee met in October to discuss retaining, and recruiting employees at NDCS, no one disputed the problems were ongoing, even as management issued statements of progress being made.

Last year one out of four prison workers quit their job, according to a report prepared by Doug Koebernic, the inspector general for the Department of Corrections.

Koebernic told the senators, “It is clear that the staffing needs of the system are not being addressed and that more needs to be done to not only recruit but more importantly retain quality staff.”

During an October hearing of the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee, Frakes testified there will be fewer concerns about overtime once all corrections facilities return to full staff, the product of successful recruitment efforts. In the meantime, he says the department has little option to staff 24-hour a day prisons with a limited number of people.

“We don’t have any kind of relief factor. We don’t have a vacation system that allows us, to allow people to take the leave they earn and do it in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on staffing," Frakes said.

Frakes is also asking for 29 additional security officers in the coming budget year but no other additional workers.

Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, a frequent critic of the corrections’ administration calls the proposal “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“That biennium request was not sufficient,” Pansing Brooks said. “I think we need to look at this outside the box and figure out what we can do to help with this entire mess.”

Senator Patty Pansing Brooks listens to testimony during a judiciary committee hearing. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The very same day NDCS director Frakes released plans for his recruitment and retention bonuses, Denise Jensen, a recruiter for the department staffed a booth in the University of Nebraska at Kearney student union.

It was an annual program for UNK’s criminal justice students and the booth was the first thing most of them saw entering the event’s job fair.

Although in competition with higher profile agencies like the Nebraska State Patrol and Omaha Police Department, students lingered to listen as Jensen talked about the benefits the department could offer employees wanting to continue their education.

Jensen explained to a small group of attentive students there are corrections workers able to get tuition reimbursement.

“They work at night and then go to class in the morning and then sleep in the afternoon. But they are coming out of it debt free,” Jensen said.

One student signed up for more information and said her goal was to be a probation officer.

“Probation?” Jensen said smiling. “You definitely want to start in corrections. Because who’s your clients? Former inmates!”

The recruiter and student left with a handshake, promising each other they would talk again.



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