Gov. Jim Justice has declared a State of Emergency and called in the National Guard to help out with staffing shortages at state correctional facilities.
Justice said during his pandemic briefing Thursday the staffing issue is “critical,” with the worst problems in the Eastern Panhandle.
“The State of Emergency will enable us to use the National Guard to bridge us through this emergency period,” he said as plans are being put into place to recruit correctional officers.
Vacancy rates are as high as 60 percent in some facilities, he said.
Members of the National Guard will support the Department of Homeland Security”to alleviate staffing shortages at adult and juvenile correctional and detention facilities.”
One of the major problems is pay, he said, and that will have to be addressed.
Justice said a bipartisan deal to address pay differentials was pushed earlier this year during the legislative session but it did not get through.
The bill would have afforded a $10,000 locality pay adjustment for correctional officers across the state where locality pay is necessary to recruit and retain employees in a competitive manner.
The full House never got the opportunity to vote on the bill.
“I hate like crazy the bill stalled and we didn’t get it through,” he said. “Of course, we will continue to work with all stakeholders moving forward to perfect the legislation, get it reintroduced, and, ultimately, get it across the finish line, but we need to do something to address the staffing shortages in our jails right now. These are critical positions and if numbers continue to dip, failure to act could become a safety concern. That’s why I’m taking action and calling this State of Emergency now.”
According to the Governor’s Office, the entry level correctional officer in WV is currently starting at $33,214. That comparable entry level officer is starting at $34,380 in Virginia, $37,630 in Ohio, $40,270, in Pennsylvania, and $43,370 in Maryland. A noncompetitive starting salary coupled with the higher average cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia makes recruiting to these positions extremely difficult.
Currently, the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Hampshire County has a vacancy rate of 64 percent. Similarly, the Vicki V. Douglas Juvenile Center in Berkeley County has a vacancy rate of 61 percent.
The Governor’s Office said the Department of Corrections has been forced to assign non-uniformed support staff to fill mandatory posts to ensure shift minimums are met. While non-uniformed staff are filling these security posts, their duties and responsibilities are delayed or delegated, which leads to delays in programming and services.
Additionally, the DCR has also been forced to assign massive amounts of mandatory overtime, along with assigning Correctional Officers from other facilities to be temporarily assigned to the affected facilities to cover required shift staffing minimums. This requires DCR to pay per diem and travel expenses out of budgets that are already stretched thin.
Along with budgetary strain, the human factor of Correctional Officers having to work seemingly endless overtime, spending assigned time away from family or their immediate support system, adds additional burden and strain to an employee’s home life. These combining factors contribute to burnout and in return cause additional vacancies in other facilities.
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