Facing Staffing Shortage, Wisconsin Raises Prison Workers' Wages
By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein
Seeking to beat back a chronic staffing shortage, the head of the state prison system announced a $10 million-a-year plan Thursday to raise wages by 80 cents an hour for thousands of workers, with some of them temporarily receiving more than that.
Department of Corrections officials say they are using existing funds to pay their workers more and don't need approval from lawmakers. They have not spelled out where they would find the savings allowing them to grant the raises.
The wage increase comes at a time when prison workers are routinely being forced to work double shifts because of staff shortages.
Among the facilities facing staff shortages are Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, juvenile facilities that share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau. Those sites are the subject of a yearlong investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse, child neglect, excessive use of pepper spray and other potential crimes.
The pay increase applies to officers, sergeants and the front-line workers at the juvenile prisons, known as youth counselors and advanced youth counselors.
"These changes will increase DOC's ability to recruit and retain qualified employees to fill critically important positions at the Department of Corrections," Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher said in a statement.
The move is one of Litscher's first major acts since taking the reins of the department in February. Litscher previously served as corrections secretary under Republican Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum.
Union officials welcomed the raise but said it should be considered only a first step toward fixing the staffing shortage after state workers saw their take-home pay cut in 2011 when they were required to pay more for their benefits.
"It's long overdue. It starts the climb back for the last five years of takebacks," said Troy Bauch, a representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 32.
Starting June 26, the employees will receive an increase of 80 cents an hour.
In addition, those working at facilities with particularly significant staff shortages will receive an additional 50 cents an hour from May 29 until early January. With the two raises, they'll be getting an extra $1.30 an hour for seven months.
The bonus raise applies to employees at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake, Waupun Correctional Institution, Green Bay Correctional Institution and Columbia Correctional Institution.
Additionally, some employees will receive merit bonuses between now and the end of June, Litscher said.
The across-the-board increase will bring the starting wage for correctional officers and youth counselors to $16 an hour. Sergeants and advanced youth counselors will receive $16.76 when they start the job.
State worker exodus
The state's difficulty in recruiting and retaining prison workers is part of a larger workforce problem for GOP Gov. Scott Walker's administration, which lost nearly one in eight employees across state government last year to factors such as retirement and competing employers.
In all, 3,600 workers outside the University of Wisconsin System moved on from their state jobs in 2015, which was 23% more than in 2014 and nearly twice as many as in 2010.
About 680 public safety workers left in 2015 for other jobs or retirement, or about 12.3% of the nearly 5,500 workers in that area.
In 2011, Walker signed the law known as Act 10, repealing most union bargaining for most public workers and increasing state workers' benefit contributions by an amount equal to about 8.5% of their take-home pay. That year, retirements jumped as employees sought to avoid fundamental changes to their retirement benefits, which didn't end up materializing.
But with the recession still deep, relatively few employees resigned to take other jobs. That has changed as the economy has improved in subsequent years and private-sector hiring has picked up.
The state offered across-the-board raises of 1% in 2014 and 2015, along with some merit increases for select employees, but no increases in the current two-year budget.
One consequence of higher employee turnover is more vacant jobs, which are challenging in prisons that have to be staffed at all times.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that almost one in five jobs stand open at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. That adds up to nearly 30 openings there.
Twenty-eight youth counselor and advanced youth counselor jobs remain unfilled out of the 146 front-line positions at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
While more workers are hired, the state has had to pay for hotel, meal and travel costs for officers who are temporarily shifted from other Wisconsin prisons.
(c)2016 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel