A tight labor market in Nebraska, plus a rising number of staff vacancies, has caused the state to offer new and more generous hiring and retention incentives for jobs at state prisons, veterans homes and other facilities that require round-the-clock staffing.
State officials described the moves as short-term steps to remain competitive, while “holistic, long-term solutions” are explored.
Eric Maher, a spokesman for the State Department of Administrative Services, said labor negotiators will be meeting with union representatives in September to discuss possible solutions.
One union official said that higher wages, not temporary bonuses, are the answer to staffing shortages that he described as the worst ever at facilities such as the Tecumseh State Prison.
Workers are regularly called on to work a second shift at the rural Tecumseh prison, and often, activities for inmates must be canceled due to a lack of security staff, despite workers being transported daily from Omaha, said Mike Chipman, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88. The union represents security staff at state prisons and regional centers.
"It's getting worse and worse," Chipman said. "I've never seen anything like this."
He said at least 150 of the 300 vacant security staff positions at state prisons are at Tecumseh, and there are 50 vacant posts at the Lincoln Regional Center, which houses inmates with mental illnesses.
Job vacancies are at a record high at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The 988 vacancies are more than 200 more than on Jan. 1, an HHS spokeswoman said, prompting new incentives for nurses and food service workers.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the new hiring and retention bonuses on Friday, with extra incentives offered to protective services staff willing to relocate to the Tecumseh prison for a year. They would receive an immediate $7,500 bonus.
That's on top of the stipends Tecumseh workers receive for commuting there, which range from $100 to $200 a month, depending on the length of the commute. All prison security staff hired before July 31 will be eligible for $500-a-month retention bonuses — billed as a pilot program — over the next year.
Hiring bonuses for new prison staff are being increased from $10,000 to $15,000, payable over three years, and new bonuses for HHS and Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs workers are being offered that total up to $10,000. Bonuses also are offered for employees who recruit new staffers.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has 354 job vacancies at its four retirement homes, which has required hiring contract workers. State officials said that all employers are responding to the increased competition for workers.
“With one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and a strong and talented workforce in Nebraska, we want to ensure that we continue to attract and retain talent at the state,” Ricketts said in a press release.
Scott Frakes, the state corrections director, said in an email to prison staff on Friday that there has been a large increase in staff turnover at the agency in the last four months and a decline in new job applicants at many state agencies.
But Corrections spokeswoman Laura Strimple said Monday that since the bonus for transferring to Tecumseh was announced, about 20 staffers have expressed interest.
Four of the state's 10 prisons, including Tecumseh and three prisons in Lincoln, are now operating under a "staffing emergency" status, which means they have shifted to two, 12-hour shifts per day as a way to operate with fewer guards and other staff. Turnover in security posts has hovered around 30%, which is double the rate Frakes has said is preferred.
Complaints from inmates and their families to the Omaha World-Herald have increased in recent weeks over the postponement of required rehabilitation programs and the abrupt cancellation of visitation periods. Sack breakfasts are delivered the night before in prisons under staffing emergencies, and recreation periods have been restricted.
The state's unemployment rate in June stood at a nation-low 2.5%. While state officials have often blamed the tight labor market for the inability to fill jobs — as have employers in the private sector — union officials like Chipman say it's low starting wages that deter applicants and encourage state workers to change jobs.
Chipman said he would be surprised if the new bonuses put a dent in job vacancies, and thinks the transfer bonus to Tecumseh will exacerbate staffing shortages at other prisons in Omaha and Lincoln.
"Let's just address the real problem here, and that's base pay," Chipman said.
Justin Hubly of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents non-security positions at Corrections and other state agencies, said that he hopes the incentives work. He said, however, that he has fielded several complaints from workers who will not get bonuses. Those include front-line caregivers at the Beatrice State Developmental Center and custodians and recreation specialists at veterans homes.
"This is leaving out a great number of employees who have worked in difficult conditions during the pandemic," Hubly said.
The Corrections union in March called for talks to increase starting wages in state prisons, citing the growing number of vacant posts and rising overtime requirements. Chipman said he thinks a starting wage of $25 an hour, a $5-an-hour raise, will be necessary to solve the state's staffing woes in state prisons.
Something needs to be done now, he said — 60 more corrections officers will be needed in May when the state is scheduled to open a new, 384-bed maximum security prison in Lincoln. And the state is looking at building a 1,500-bed prison soon to address issues of overcrowding and aging facilities, requiring even more staff.
Nebraska's prisons regularly hold about 2,000 more inmates than they were designed to house. The state has the second-most overcrowded prisons in the country, trailing only Alabama.