First look at the nation: Missouri has the lowest average salary for state employees across the land. Now focus on the trenches of the largest agency in the Show-Me State.
Nearly half of the Missouri Department of Corrections’ 11,000 employees are the so-called forgotten officers of the judicial system. Typically armed with just pepper spray and handcuffs, corrections officers work in an enclosed environment amid a clientèle that failed at living in the community. The South Central Correction Center, off West Highway 32 at Licking, holds 1,600 prisoners and employs about 400.
They say prison work is often tedious, sometimes risky and always low-paying.
In Missouri, corrections officers and jailers made an average of $30,310 in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only counterparts in Mississippi, Georgia and Puerto Rico made less.
Pay progression is minimal and benefits have been slashed, particularly for the new generation of employees, said Gary Gross, head of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, an employee union.
He said the salary for an entry-level corrections officer jumps from $28,800 a year to $29,300 after nine months on the job. Then that’s it for a long time.
“Anyone who has been there 14 years makes the same money as somebody who has been there nine months,” Gross said.
The corrections business is notorious for staffing issues, but Gross said pay levels and turnover are particularly troublesome now. There aren’t many people stepping up to fill empty slots. Meanwhile, he said, hiring standards have dropped. The minimum age has fallen from 21 to 19. This year, the corrections department started accepting job candidates without a license to drive.
The corrections department denied a media request to observe training of new recruits.
According to a Post-Dispatch analysis of state employment data, corrections department turnover is the highest it has been since at least 2005. The agency had a 16.6 percent turnover rate during the annual period ending Sept. 30.
Among the 4,600 entry-level corrections officers the numbers are particularly bleak. More than 21 percent of those employees, who earn an average of $14.18 an hour, left their jobs during the past year — 16 percent of them voluntarily so.
Both figures are the highest rates the department has seen during the past decade for that position. That’s 982 corrections officers gone who need to be replaced, in just one year.
Turnover is costly anywhere, but to an extent it can be good, said a former prison administrator. Some people aren’t cut out for the unglamorous work and are best to move on. Breaking up a bloody fight or bracing for the next one can be stressful on officers and their families.
Corrections officers come from various walks of life, according to interviews with current and former officers contacted independently of the union and agency.
Some are career folks who take pride in the mission of trying to reform Missouri prisoners, no matter the wage. Others, are disgruntled and would go on strike if law enforcement officers were allowed to.
Many, like Matt Payne, did the work only briefly before moving on to something else.
In 2009, Payne started commuting from Columbia, Mo., to Algoa Correctional Center, the Jefferson City prison, located on No More Victims Road. He said he liked the people, enjoyed the work and felt safe doing it. The hours and pay, though, were brutal.
Staffing was so tight that he and other employees often stepped up to work multiple double-shifts each week. He racked up so much comp time there weren’t enough people working there to cover for time off.
“That just drags the life out of you,” said Payne, 32, who lasted five months and now works for an insurance company in Montana. “There were some nights where nobody wanted to stay. They wouldn’t unlock the front door to let you go home until somebody volunteered.”
After Jeff Cooley lost his Internet technology job in St. Louis in 2001, he said his wife eventually suggested corrections as an option.
“I needed the insurance for my family,” said Cooley, 47, who has a degree in computer science. “I went from making $30 an hour down to $9.50 when I started there. I think I got one raise. It was 50 cents.”
He primarily worked in the sex offender program at Farmington Correctional Center. Less than two years later he found a job closer to his field of study.
“For eight hours I had the risk of being assaulted, the risk of catching a disease,” said Cooley, who now works in IT at a hospital in Potosi.
Dietra Daniels, 53, said she became a corrections officer in Farmington in 2008 because she needed more money to support two children than she was earning as an administrative assistant for the state.
She worked in the dining area for a while, also housing. One day in 2012 she fell down the stairs. She was on workers’ compensation for a while and didn’t come back after neck surgery.
Corrections workers filed 627 workers’ compensation claims since Jan. 1, 2012. Some of these claims are still pending resolution; 443 claims have been settled for a collective $5.6 million.
Daniels said the best thing she could say about her time in corrections was that the pay was better than her former job.
“If you are going to choose that job for a career, I would recommend going to a state that pays better than Missouri,” said Daniels, of Cedar Hill.
Missouri prisons near the state line struggle with that mentality, said Gross, of the union. He said prisons in Bowling Green and Vandalia, in northeast Missouri, probably have the highest turnover because of better alternatives in the region.
The average salary of a correctional officer was $57,910 recently in nearby Illinois and $46,680 in Iowa, according to the U.S. government.
Current employees for the Missouri Department of Corrections contacted would not be identified because the agency forbids them from talking to the media.
They said staffing at each of the 21 state prisons is different. Some are much more short staffed than others. One employee, who has worked two decades for the corrections department, said the hiring pool in the eastern region of the state is nearly empty. Another veteran said he had noticed the quality of new hires plummet, which didn’t surprise him given the pay and cuts to benefits.
A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon declined to comment and referred questions about pay to the Department of Corrections, which is often tight-lipped.
David Owen, spokesman for the agency, pointed out in an email that the agency’s annual employee turnover rate was a little less than the average for other executive branch state agencies, which was recently 18 percent.
Departments with higher turnover rates than corrections included economic development (17 percent), social services (19 percent), public safety (23 percent) and mental health (26 percent).
“The department has been able to effectively manage the current staff to ensure the safety and security of all its institutions and surrounding communities while providing rehabilitative services to incarcerated offenders,” Owen said in a prepared statement. “As always, custody and non-custody employees at the department’s correctional centers can volunteer to work overtime to fill shifts that arise when job vacancies occur.”
The agency, which has $710.2 million in its operating budget in the current fiscal year, about half of which is for payroll, spent $7 million in overtime in 2013, $8 million in 2014 and $9 million in 2015.
Owen said recruiters for the agency are working continuously to fill hiring pools around the state.
“The number of applicants in the hiring pools is lower than normal, which tends to occur in an improving economy,” he said.
Representatives of the employee union have lobbied unsuccessfully to pass a hazardous pay bill in recent years and will try again in the 2016 Legislative session that begins in January.
State Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, plans to make corrections officer pay more of a priority this time around. As the chairwoman of the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee, she has the power to push for that.
“We’re looking at all kinds of things to do to find money,” Conway said. “I promise to (look for money) under every stone.”
She’s aware that it’s not just state correction officers who face low pay and high turnover rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average pay for full-time Missouri government workers — $39,993 in 2013 — was the lowest among state employees nationwide. That low pay leads to high turnover rates.
Missouri employees didn’t receive a pay raise in the current budget year, but they saw small raises in years prior.
But the economy is looking up for the state. In the budget year that ended June 30, state revenue came in $340 million more than anticipated, and revenue has continued to grow since then.
House Budget Chairman Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, and House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, are pushing for an increase in pay for all state employees in the coming budget year.
An across-the-board pay raise would be great, Conway said, but she’d like to give corrections officers a boost on top of that if she can.
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
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