By John Celock
Kansas corrections officers could be in line for a pay raise under a budget proposal approved by lawmakers Thursday.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a plan that would give a 2.5 percent pay hike for corrections officers in the state. The pay hike comes after several years of union leaders and others pushing for a higher pay plan, arguing that there is a recruitment and retention issue within the Department of Corrections. The department is currently seeing a 30 percent turnover rate.
“Recruitment and retention are the biggest issues we face in our state workforce,” House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road as turnover creeps over 30 percent annually.”
The Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee approved the pay plan as part of its recommendations to the Appropriations Committee earlier this week. The pay raise would cost the state $2.45 million annually.
Kansas Organization of State Employees executive director Rebecca Proctor told The Celock Report that with Kansas corrections officers in the bottom 10 percent for pay among corrections officers in the country, a pay raise is needed. She noted that a new corrections officer in Kansas make $13.61 an hour with the pay rising to just over $14 an hour within a year. KOSE has been a vocal advocate for a pay hike for the Department of Corrections in recent years.
Proctor noted that while DOC has been underpaid, there are employees across state government who haven’t seen a pay raise in several years.
“With the pay raise it definitely is a step in the right direction,” she said. “Certainly we have other state employees who are just underpaid. We have been trying to bring the disparity in corrections to light for years.”
Proctor noted that one of the issues with the lower pay scale has been the decrease in age for new corrections officers. The state has lowered the minimum age for corrections officers from 20 to 18.
Proctor said that while she has nothing against an 18 year old, she said it can be concerning for them to be responsible for providing safety in maximum-security prisons. She noted in the past, Kansas recruited many former members of the military to be corrections officers.
“We don’t pay enough to get ex military anymore,” she said.
Those leaving the Department of Corrections have been moving to a variety of fields, including to higher paying prison jobs in county jail systems and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities, along with private prisons. Some leave the corrections field all together. The problem has been significant in the northeastern part of the state, where federal prisons are located.
Claeys said that while he believes other state employees are “deserving” of a raise, the Department of Corrections needed to be addressed first due to safety concerns.
“There are many deserving of raises, but there are clear areas where a failure to act will impact public safety and the safety of our officers,” Claeys said.
Claeys indicated that the pay plan – which was not part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) budget proposal – can be financed through savings in other parts of the public safety budget. Among these would be $2.1 million the state will save in reduced penalties for marijuana possession or $2.1 million in reduced community caseloads.
Corrections Department spokesman Adam Pfannenstiel told The Celock Report that the agency supports Brownback’s original budget proposal and said, “the governor is supportive of corrections.” He said that the agency looks to reward staff in the agency and appreciates being able to have a discussion with lawmakers regarding the staff at the department.
Pfannenstiel said the department will continue to monitor the budget process as it moves forward.
“I feel confident as we move forward that whatever is good for the state of Kansas will end up happening,” he said.
The pay hike is not the first one for public safety officers in Kansas. Last year, Claeys and his committee developed a plan to provide a pay hike for the Kansas Highway Patrol. Brownback’s budget proposal included full funding for the plan. This year, Claeys and his committee also developed a pay hike plan for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which was approved by the Appropriations Committee Thursday. The KBI plan will help lead to what Claeys describes as a career path between the two agencies.
House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Vice Chairman Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) said he is “thrilled” the Appropriations Committee adopted the corrections pay hike recommendation. He said the next step is for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Administration to conduct a study of the market pay for corrections officers.
Jennings said the goal is to create a “market based pay plan” that would allow for the state to be competitive with the federal, local and private prison systems.
“I see this as a first step to assuring we are competitive,” he said.
Thursday’s actions by the Appropriations Committee are part of the process for the budget proposal that Brownback sent lawmakers last month. The corrections pay plan will have to pass both chambers of the Legislature and likely survive a budget conference committee before being sent to Brownback. Supporters say they will continue to press the issue as one of public safety and good management practices.
Claeys said decreasing the turnover rate will lead to better management in the department. He noted that the increased turnover leads to more time and money spent not only on recruitment but on training new corrections officers.
“There is a 30 percent turnover rate that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Training and recruiting cost money. There is nothing efficient about turnover.”
Proctor said that she and KOSE will press the issue to help public safety and corrections officers.
“It is motivated by is the pay I am earning enough to put my life on the line every single day,” she said.