Archive for Thursday, April 6, 2006

Corrections officers in line for raise

April 6, 2006

A long-sought pay increase for state corrections officers has been approved by legislators, but skepticism remains regarding the efficacy of the salary boost.

The Senate appropriations bill includes multiple raises for all state corrections workers, but there is doubt as to whether the pay raises will help curb low employee retention rates, a potential cause of safety hazards. Dave McKune, warden at Lansing Correctional Facility, said he believed the move to be a "first step."

"The turnover rate (at LCF) is probably 35 percent a year," McKune said. "I think we're going to have to be more competitive."

The new bill promises total increases of 6.5 percent for uniformed corrections officers, 4 percent for nonuniformed employees, and a much-awaited step movement for both groups. The bill also raises the starting salary for new employees two steps. But McKune said these actions, while sending the right message to employees, is far from closing the gap between state corrections pay and that of other entities.

McKune explained that because federal and corporate corrections organizations offer much better pay, they are more selective when hiring. State operations like LCF are often left with applicants with little or no experience. LCF shoulders the burden of training inexperienced officers, many of whom opt for higher-paid positions within corporate or federal institutions or law enforcement agencies after six to 24 months.

The potential dangers from inexperience or understaffing are dire, said Kansas Rep. Marti Crow, D-Leavenworth, one of the bill's supporters.

"A few summers ago, a corrections officer was raped because she was the only one on her post because they'd had to pull the other officer that was with her - there should have been three (initially)," Crow said.

"That's what happens when you don't pay enough."

Often, understaffing results in long hours for officers who don't want to leave their co-workers alone, and long hours can lead to oversights or accident.

"We just had an escape, and it's very possible that that could be because we have untrained officers that we are putting on-line immediately," Crow said, referring to the much-publicized Feb. 12 escape of convicted killer John Manard. "Or that we have officers that are tired or we don't have enough officers on post."

Crow hopes that the raises will help to alleviate some of the strain on the work force at LCF and other state corrections facilities by encouraging retention and recruiting.

Crow said the increase will be meted out in several stages. The first is a 1.5 percent base salary increase for 2007 effective July. Sept. 10 will signal a single classified step movement for all employees, along with an additional 2.5 percent base salary adjustment. Uniformed corrections officers will receive another 2.5 percent salary increase for 2007 at this time. The rate for new hires will also jump up two steps, and though the official figures have not yet been released, LCF officials calculate that after the final increases in September, the starting pay rate should be around $12.41 per hour. The current starting rate is $11.64 per hour.

McKune said state corrections pay still had a long way to go, and even after the raises will be as much as three to four dollars behind other institutions. But he hopes these increases will help boost morale among LCF employees, and signify the state's acknowledgement of the problem.

"This is the first step in really creating a better corrections environment across the board," McKune said.

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