- Associated Press - Sunday, January 10, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Despite a campaign to hire more workers in Nebraska’s short-staffed prison system, many of the jobs remain vacant and the corrections department is struggling to fill them.

Corrections officials ran radio and online ads last year to recruit more workers, reached out to Nebraska National Guard members and networked at high schools throughout the state. Facing a shortage of mental health professionals, the department offered internships to college students.

“We’re making progress, but it’s not as fast as we’d like,” said Erinn Criner, the Department of Correctional Service’s human resources administrator. “We’re competing for a small pool of available applicants throughout the state.”

Part of the challenge stems from the state’s strong economy and low unemployment rate, which makes it easier for workers find better-paying private sector jobs. Entry-level corrections officers generally make a little more than $15 an hour for work in a stressful, high-pressure atmosphere with long hours. Union officials say a lack of longevity pay makes it harder to keep experienced staffers.

Some of the jobs are in less-populated areas, such as Tecumseh, roughly an hour’s drive from Omaha and Lincoln. And facilities that operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, tend to demand more overtime and aren’t as flexible as other employers.

Criner said the department is working to improve its work-life balance for employees, reduce overtime and fill more of the open jobs. Director Scott Frakes, who was appointed last year, has promised a “culture change” within the department following a series of scandals before his tenure, but he warned the new approach may come slowly.

“It’s really important that we think about employee engagement, and whether they have an opportunity to learn and grow,” Criner said.

The department’s recruiting and retention challenges will surface during this year’s session, when lawmakers consider a proposal to spend an additional $2.5 million on staffing.

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse said he introduced the bill last week to draw attention to the problems in the prisons, including the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in his district.

“We have to do something, and this is at least a way to recognize the problem,” Watermeier said. “This is about the only thing I can do to reach out to the staff, to show that we’re trying to support them.”

Watermeier said the money could be used as a bonus for the department’s roughly 2,500 employees, similar to one that was provided to workers at the Beatrice State Developmental Center in the late 2000s when that facility struggled to retain staff.

The measure likely faces an uphill battle because of the state’s $110 million projected budget shortfall, which lawmakers will have to address this year to balance the budget. It also was not part of the department’s formal legislative budget request, which includes $26 million for expanded bed space at community corrections facilities.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the agency generally doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Many of the staffing problems could be fixed if department officials improved the working conditions in the prisons, said Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees/AFSCME Local 61.

Marvin said front-line staffers at the Tecumseh prison are still working 12-hour days, four days a week to compensate for unfilled positions. The prison remains on a partial lockdown that began with the May 10 riot, which left two inmates dead and caused widespread damage to walls, cells, furniture and the heating and cooling system.

Mandatory overtime at the prison makes it harder to recruit workers with young children, as does the distance of some facilities from Omaha and Lincoln, Marvin said. County corrections jobs in Omaha and Lincoln tend to pay more.

Marvin said prison officials could address some of the challenges by recruiting in pockets of the state with high unemployment, or providing transportation and child care services as an incentive.

The extra money proposed by Watermeier “is maybe a short-term fix,” Marvin said. “But we need a long-term fix.”

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