Study highlights need for boost in DOC employee compensation

Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections system is facing a massive crisis in the staffing department.

If you were to enter a prison in Oklahoma, you’d find it outmanned and understaffed. It’s a problem reaching epidemic proportions and threatens to bring down a Department of Corrections system that is stretched further than a drum.

That was the main topic of focus at Thursday’s interim study meeting in the House Public Safety Committee. Rep. Jeff Hickman of Dacoma requested the study, with a focus on a proposal of a pay increase for DOC employees in Oklahoma. In the study, he highlighted just how bad the staffing problem is in the state by bringing a handful of speakers to the study to share their experiences in the field.

The overriding message from the officials who spoke at the study was that DOC needs to offer a better compensation packet to employees so they can be retained and a better initial salary so new hires will stay. Right now, the starting pay for a DOC employee is $11.83 an hour. That pales in comparison to the market in rural Oklahoma, where oil-related jobs can bring in $25 an hour. And in small communities in places like western Oklahoma, DOC is competing with oil companies, convenience stores and other outlets for employees because pay isn’t competitive.

But it’s more than just pay, speakers said at the study.

“In my career I’ve never been more concerned” about the employee situation, said Janie Melton, warden of the Johnson Correctional Center in Alva. “Not just the pay, but it’s also going six years without being valued in any way.”

Terry Martin, head of the Conner Correction Center in Hominy, said the situation is dire for the employees that are there because they know long hours lay ahead.

“You don’t know what it is like to be on your post for a shift, then look down at the staff briefing and see no one is coming your way and knowing you’ll have to put in another eight hours,” he said.

The compensation package proposed at the study would be $12.2 million total and go toward raising current DOC employee salaries as well as move the new-hire employee rate to $14 an hour. While that’s still not close to what a person could make in the oil field, it would differentiate from customer service jobs and, combined with benefits, would make working for DOC more attractive. Right now, DOC employees face dire financial straits. According to a DOC handout, employee turnover is a huge problem in correctional facilities. The turnover rate for starting correctional officers is 69 percent in Fiscal Year 2011, up from 53 percent in FY 2010. The turnover rate for starting probation and parole officers has seen an even higher spike, jumping from nine percent in 2010 to 56 percent last year.

OPEA member and Central District Community Corrections Supervisor Carrie Croy agrees.

“Turnover is our biggest problem right now,” said Croy. “In the last year we lost about eight probation and parole officers to the AG’s office because they paid more money,. And with our recent tragic loss of one of our officers, additional officers are also leaving. I would, definitely say that turnover and funding are our biggest obstacles right now.”

Matters are even worse when you find out many correctional center employees qualify for government assistance. Based on a single income family of four, 29.7 percent of existing staff qualify for food stamps based upon their current salary and 85 percent qualify for the free/reduced school lunch program.

“You’re playing defense. It’s like the Alamo,” said Rep. Todd Thomsen, Ada, to Martin, of the situation DOC faces.

“OPEA is concerned about the brave DOC employees who staff our prisons and monitor offenders in our communities,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “We support the plan to boost DOC employee pay to market and will advocate for improved compensation packages for all state employees in the upcoming legislative session.”

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