Wis. prison staff shortage leads to costly overtime

Wisconsin’s correctional officer shortage cost taxpayers more than $42 million last year

By CorrectionsOne Staff

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s correctional officer shortage cost taxpayers more than $42 million last year.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, there are currently 920 unfilled corrections jobs in the state, a vacancy rate of about 12.5 percent, the Associated Press reported. Staffing shortages have been a long-standing problem in the state’s Department of Corrections.

The problem is most severe at the Waupun Correctional Institution and Redgranite Correctional Institution, where more than 20 percent of jobs are open, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. At four other prisons, including the state’s juvenile facility, more than 17 percent of jobs are open.

Overtime pay increased 1.3 percent in 2017 from 2016, which is a smaller increase compared to previous years. But for some officers, the staffing shortages have become stressful for them.

“It’s very stressful,” said Paul Mertz, an officer at the Redgranite prison. “You never know if you’re going home at the end of the day.”

Corrections officials have made some efforts to retain and recruit more officers, such as increasing pay. Officers at all of the state’s prisons received an 80-cent pay increase in 2016, and the starting wage, which is currently $16 an hour, will increase to $16.65 next year. 

Under the DOC’s recent plans, officers will make $18.70 per hour after two years on the job. 

But the shortage still isn’t showing any signs of improvement.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach said a 2011 law that limited officers’ collective bargaining power and required them to pay more for benefits is causing the problem. He said employees have been hesitant to take or stay in prison jobs because of low pay and losing the ability to negotiate about safety conditions.

Tristan Cook, spokesperson for the DOC, said correctional facilities across the country are experiencing the same staffing issues. Cook said the state’s record-low unemployment rate is making it difficult to fill prison jobs, and that Wisconsin faced a similar challenge from 2011 to 2004.

"With the improving economy after 2011, leading to historically low unemployment rates today, we are experiencing many of the same issues as private-sector employers in recruiting workers," Cook said in a statement.

Mertz said new recruits at the Redgranite prison are “burning out” fast and starting to quit. He said he’s so concerned about the shortage that the should plan to bring in the National Guard if necessary.

Cook said that officials don’t believe the National Guard will be needed at the prison. He added that a new class of recruits will be trained in July to help fill jobs there.

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