Funds proposed for corrections staff

The state would use $2.5 million from its general fund to recruit and retain state Department of Correctional Services staff under a bill heard by the Appropriations Committee Feb. 10.

Introduced by Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier, LB733 is intended to help the department recruit and retain staff in areas that face shortages. At least 10 percent of the money would be set aside to recruit staff—including psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses—to the department’s Division of Health Services.

The department would be required to send quarterly reports to the governor and the Legislature on how it uses the money, what impact it has on recruitment and retention and how the department would use such funds in the future.

In a recent survey of corrections staff by the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System, Watermeier said, 68 percent of respondents said giving annual raises would be the biggest change the department could make to better retain employees.

Watermeier said the department had 203 vacant positions in December, 62 of them at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. When asked about coworkers who had quit their jobs, he said, 42 percent of respondents said that pay was the main reason.

The proposed increase in funding would help reduce staff turnover and improve morale at all of the state’s correctional facilities, he said.

“I feel that we need to help the Department of Corrections, specifically at Tecumseh, not next year or [in] five years but now,” he said.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, spoke in support of the bill but said he hopes most of the money would be used for retention instead of recruitment. He said the department hired approximately 600 employees last year, but the state’s correctional facilities still are understaffed because of high turnover.

“The Department of Correctional Services has no problem hiring employees,” Marvin said. “They have a problem retaining employees.”

Corrections Director Scott Frakes spoke in a neutral capacity. He said the department is trying to address staff shortages by hiring a full-time recruiter and using social media, advertising and job fairs. Frakes said he cannot unilaterally raise employees’ salaries or offer them bonuses because any changes in compensation must be negotiated with the employees’ union.

“I struggle at this time with how to utilize these funds in an efficient way to permanently address this complex issue,” he said.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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