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Amid staffing shortage, Idaho raises starting pay for corrections officers, adds bonuses

Idaho

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – In response to Idaho prisons’ staffing shortage, which has prompted safety concerns for workers and inmates, Department of Correction officials have bumped starting pay and will offer sign-on and retention bonuses effective immediately, the state announced this week.

IDOC will boost starting pay to $19 an hour, and offer $1,500 sign-on bonuses and the “potential” for a $1,500 yearly retention bonus for the first five years of employment, according to its website. The starting pay alone is a 13.4% bump, from $16.75 an hour.

Department of Correction spokesperson Jeff Ray said in an email Friday that the state also will raise current employees’ compensation and put as much emphasis on retaining staff as hiring more people. The raises will be effective Sept. 5 and appear on staffers’ paychecks beginning in October. About 1,200 employees will see raises totaling $6.2 million annually, along with another $2.2 million in onetime bonuses, Ray said.

Gov. Brad Little’s spokesperson, Marissa Morrison Hyer, said the department currently has a total of $7.7 million available for this fiscal year — $2.2 million in salary savings and $5.5 million in federal relief for COVID-19-related expenses, including personnel costs.

“The move to immediately raise security staff salaries signifies Gov. Little’s commitment to recruit and retain personnel so that correctional facilities can safely operate and the department can carry out its vital public safety mission,” Morrison Hyer said in a statement.

Department of Correction officials have said hiring new staff became a struggle as wages quickly grew more competitive during the pandemic.

“We believe these changes will make us more competitive, and our immediate priority is addressing the staffing crisis in our correctional officer ranks,” Ray said. “But we also know there’s a lot more work to do.”

Much of the staffing shortage affected the six prisons in the South Boise Correctional Complex in Kuna, south of the Boise Airport, where about 5,500 inmates are incarcerated. The complex has 1,041 positions, 851 of which are filled, Ray said.

MILLIONS NEEDED FOR PRISON PAY STRUCTURE, GOVERNOR’S OFFICE SAYS

The new pay structure follows two security incidents earlier this month in the Idaho State Correctional Center, one of the department’s largest prisons south of Boise, which has struggled with understaffing in the past few months. One attack sent a paralegal to a hospital.

For over a month leading up to the incidents, several Department of Correction employees contacted legislators, pleading with them to fix their staffing shortage before someone got hurt, according to public records obtained by the Idaho Statesman.

On Aug. 9, a female staffer was struck in the face and head by an inmate, an assault that left her needing at least two facial surgeries, one corrections sergeant said. A day later, 22 inmates got into a fight after one employee accidentally opened several cell doors in a housing unit, according to the Department of Correction.

“I’m asking for your help in resolving this problem before it becomes a tragedy and someone gets hurt,” an IDOC employee wrote in July. “Be it an inmate or staff member, because there was not enough officers on duty to stop a fight or an escape attempt.”

Staffers also told lawmakers of 16-hour shifts and the amount of overtime they’ve worked, and said one officer nearly fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home from work.

Morrison Hyer said that state departments submit their fiscal year budgets by Sept. 1, when the governor’s office expects IDOC to request the millions in added funding for the salary changes and bonuses. That money would need to be approved by the Legislature.

State Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat who has been outspoken about the prisons’ staffing shortage, said he wants a safe work environment for the state’s employees and for inmates. But he pointed out that the increased pay is still lower than what the Oregon prison pays across the state line in Ontario, and he doesn’t think it will be enough given inflation rates.

“It’s a very, very tough job, and for that reason, it’s a hard job to get people to take,” Gannon told the Statesman. “It’s progress, but whether it solves the problem or not, we’ll just have to see. The state may have to do better.”

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