LINCOLN, NE – LINCOLN — The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has another problem to wrestle with: a lack of personnel.
The embattled agency, which is already grappling with overcrowded prisons, a scandal involving the mistaken early releases of hundreds of inmates, and legislative inquiries into its handling of mentally ill inmates, is seeing a big increase in overtime expenses.
State figures indicate that overtime costs at Nebraska’s prisons rose 32 percent from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30.
Overtime costs have more than doubled over the past five years, to $4.54 million, raising questions about burnout and the safety of corrections officers.
Former officers said requests for people to work overtime were made every day at some facilities and, at the Tecumseh State Prison, the entire night shift was often ordered to work an additional eight hours after finishing its eight-hour overnight shift.
“There were weeks I’d work five days a week, 16 hours a day,” said Daniel Melgoza, a former corrections officer at Tecumseh who quit a year ago because he couldn’t get requested time off to be with his daughter.
Manpower has always been a problem for the state prison system, particularly at the rurally located Tecumseh State Prison, because of a smaller pool of available labor. The worker turnover rate at Tecumseh, 23 percent, is the highest in the state system, and overtime costs there have about doubled in just the past two years.
Across the agency, staffing problems appear to have worsened since the end of the Great Recession, as the job market has improved and corrections officers have left for jobs with more predictable working hours.
An officer’s pay, which starts at $15.15 an hour, doesn’t appear to be the primary problem, though prison systems in other states have increased compensation to combat high turnover and high numbers of vacancies.
To be sure, being a corrections officer is stressful, and a condition of the job is to work “mandatory overtime” when there is a shortage of guards. A prison can’t safely operate without a full crew.
But former officers, a union official and some state senators say that unless the department fills more of its vacancies and lessens the need for mandatory overtime, it is headed for more trouble. They cited the example of another state facility, the Beatrice State Developmental Center, where mandatory overtime contributed to poor care and the subsequent loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who has been monitoring the staffing situation at the department, said it has become a “vicious cycle”: Corrections officers quit because they are mandated to work too much overtime, yet such overtime costs are rising because of the vacant positions and difficulty in hiring new guards.
“It’s putting the corrections officers at risk,” said Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, who has led legislative prison reform efforts. “They’re working longer hours, and it’s already a high-stress job.”
Nebraska prison officials have said they are aware of the problems and have stepped up recruiting efforts.
A billboard now stands outside of the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, for instance, beckoning applicants to “make a difference” by embarking on a career as a corrections officer.
James Foster, a Corrections spokesman, said the department also is using new recruiting approaches, such as sending officers to speak at career fairs at local colleges and universities, and using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach younger recruits.
Agencywide, turnover is about 13 percent. It’s highest at Tecumseh, but also higher than the average at the women’s prison in York (20 percent) and at the State Penitentiary (17 percent).
One problem, Foster said, is that “millennial”-age employees are more interested in “purpose and meaning” in a job and don’t respond as well to autocratic supervision.
“You really have to work with them,” Foster said. “You can’t use the old ‘Sgt. Rock’ kind of talk with them. … We need to change the culture as the world changes.”
Earlier this year the Corrections Department asked for an increase in funding to hire 59 additional corrections officers, supervisors and caseworkers. State lawmakers rejected the request because the department already had about 150 vacant positions and the authority to fund them.
Mello, head of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said it didn’t make sense to give the department more money to hire new officers if it couldn’t fill existing jobs.
As of June 30, the agency had 159 vacant positions, which included 60 posts for corrections officers, sergeants and lieutenants, and 21 caseworkers. But Foster said the vacancies have declined to 108 now. The department is authorized for about 1,250 corrections officers and caseworkers, a number that has remained about the same since 2006, despite a 17 percent increase in the number of inmates.
Foster added that vacancies and turnover have traditionally been higher in the corrections field, because of the nature of the work, and while overtime is up, the turnover rate is about the same as in recent years.
Three former corrections officers said that while the work was challenging and the pay was adequate, they ended up hating the working conditions. The biggest complaints? The constant requests to work overtime and an inability to get an approved day off.
Mike Fleming, 33, worked nearly six years at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln before quitting in 2012. A former security officer in the National Guard, he said he was told by veteran officers that if he needed a day off it was better to call in sick than formally request time off, because such a request would be rejected.
“It wasn’t unusual for some people to work 80 hours a week,” Fleming said.
Some officers readily volunteered for the extra hours and pay, 1½ times regular pay. But if not enough guards volunteered, mandatory overtime was ordered.
Fleming said he was lucky: He was never ordered to work overtime. But when he volunteered for extra hours, he noticed that productivity dropped. Some officers, Fleming said, would “hide out” because of fatigue during the extra shift.
Melgoza, who worked at Tecumseh, said overtime requests were almost a daily occurrence at the rural prison about 55 miles southeast of Lincoln.
The absences were worst on Nebraska football game days, Melgoza said. One time, 27 guards called in sick, he said.
State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said he would oppose locating any other state prisons in a rural area, because of the shortage of labor there.
Melgoza, a 32-year-old Marine veteran, commuted from Lincoln to Tecumseh, about an hour’s drive. So when he worked overtime, that left only five or six hours for sleep before he had to return to work.
Melgoza, who is divorced, said he had considered making a career out of corrections; the benefits and pay were good, and he was told he would get every other weekend off, which would fit with the visitation schedule with his daughter.
But the every-other-weekend schedule didn’t materialize, he said, and he quit a year ago after growing disgruntled with constant overtime and after being denied a promised weekend off to see his child. Melgoza now works at a Lincoln plating company, polishing chrome parts.
“The inmates never bothered me,” Melgoza said. “It was how that place was run.”
Mandatory overtime creates stress and lowers morale, said another former corrections worker, Mike Steadman. He now works for the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the main state employees union, after 13 years with Corrections. Workers, he said, now get two “byes” from mandatory overtime a year, but that isn’t always enough to prevent conflicts.
Nebraska isn’t alone in struggling to hire and retain corrections officers.
A recent survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators placed “staff concerns,” including employee shortages, turnover and overtime, as among the five top “critical issues” facing state prisons.
Poor pay, a more competitive, post-recession job market and a growing number of retirees were blamed by states answering the survey.
Iowa, though, may be an exception. Fred Scaletta, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, said that overtime expenses there have fallen since 2011, though the agency still has 150 job vacancies. Next year the department is seeking to add 147 corrections officers.
So what’s the answer?
Nebraska Corrections Department officials said they’re studying why employees don’t stay.
Mello, the legislative leader, said he will ask for staffing issues to be included in a special state legislative study probing problems at Corrections.
This week Corrections is scheduled to submit its budget request for the next two years, which is likely to include new prison facilities and more officers to staff them, given the current overcrowding.
State prisons, as of Aug. 31, were at 155.5 percent of capacity, which is a slight improvement over recent months but still well above the 140 percent level that can trigger the declaration of an emergency by the governor.
Mello said the state needs to figure out why it can’t fill its open prison jobs.
“This issue is complicated,” he said. “They have money to hire staff, but for some reason they’re not able to keep staff.”