MADISON — Wisconsin Department of Corrections staff logged $50 million in overtime costs in 2018, according to an internal review.
The amount, for overtime hours worked at adult correctional institutions, increased by $7 million or 246,427 hours from two years previous, in 2016. The expense for 2017 was not immediately available.
While the issue of overtime, largely caused by staffing vacancies, is not new, it is heightened by an era of low unemployment that has caused many would-be corrections officers to take jobs elsewhere. Wisconsin for most of 2018 saw an unemployment rate at or below 3 percent.
The adult corrections institutions logging the largest amounts of overtime are: Dodge Correctional, with about $6 million in overtime costs; Waupun Correctional, with about $5 million; and Oshkosh Correctional, with about $4 million in overtime.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, in a previous interview with the Wisconsin State Journal said increasing wages for corrections officers could be part of the solution to the chronic overtime problem.
About 680, or 15 percent, of correctional officer and sergeant positions were vacant last year, similar to recent years.
Recruitment efforts include holding Correctional Officer Pre-Service Academies, which allow potential job candidates to train, often at correctional facilities, to eventually take jobs with the department. The seven-week trainings take place around the state and focus on academic and applied training on topics such as state law and administrative code, communications skills, emergency response, first aid, suicide prevention, work-life balance, report writing, Prison Rape Elimination Act training and use of force training, among other things.
The department has attempted to attract candidates by including a $2,000 sign-on bonus at Waupun, Dodge and Columbia Correctional Institutions, a 2 percent wage increase for employees this month, and hourly rate increases for officers at several institutions, among other changes.
Recruiting and retention efforts have not proven overly successful, however, with about half of the officers from a pre-service academy cohort recruited last year no longer with the department, according to prior media reports.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said in a statement that there’s no question the state’s low unemployment rate has contributed to worker shortages at DOC, despite previous hourly pay increases, but that legislators will look toward more “innovative” solutions in the upcoming budget debate.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he’s not surprised by high overtime costs last year.
“It’s one of the toughest jobs in the public sector,” he said.
He commended the department’s attempts to recruit additional workers, but lamented what he saw as a lack of respect for officers under the Walker administration augmented by Act 10, which he argued lessened public employee input. He said he’s hopeful the Evers administration will re-open lines of communication with public workers.
DOC spokeswoman Clare Hendricks referenced the state’s low unemployment rate as a contributor to the agency’s difficulty in retaining workers.
Lincoln Hills youth facility
Staff shortages have been an area of particular concern at the state’s embattled Lincoln Hills Youth Prison, which under a 2018 law is slated to be closed by the end of 2021.
Chronic worker shortages at the Northwoods youth facility have forced guards, some of whom have been subject to assaults by inmates, to work overtime as the facility has faced ongoing lawsuits and criminal investigations over the treatment of youth inmates there.
The prison was required under a court order to reduce the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement and has struggled to recruit and retain workers at the facility.
Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday he will visit the Lincoln Hills facility Friday, something he promised to do in his first week on the job during last year’s gubernatorial campaign.
Former Gov. Scott Walker previously said he saw “no value” in visiting the state’s prisons.