LINCOLN — A state labor court has ruled that a raise in pay is not justified for Nebraska corrections officers, who have long complained about excessive overtime and higher turnover of colleagues and lower pay than county jailers.
The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations based its ruling, released Thursday, on an array of seven states that have similar-sized budgets and staff.
The court also rejected the employees’ request to order “step increases” for longevity, which workers said would be key to stemming an exit of state corrections officers to county jails, which offer wage hikes for years of service.
The president of the union that represents security staff in state prisons, mental health facilities and youth rehabilitation centers called the ruling “terrible” for the future operation of such facilities.
“I’ve already had multiple people tell me they’re going to leave the department,” said Mike Chipman, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 and an Omaha prison employee. “It’s going to exacerbate the staffing crisis we have. I am worried for the safety of prisons and the public.”
Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said Friday that while the court ruled that Nebraska treats corrections officers “more favorably than our comparable states … we value our teammates and are willing to sit down and continue to talk to the union.”
The corrections union declared an impasse in negotiations for a new labor contract in January after rejecting the final offer by the state — a 2 percent salary hike and a 0.3 percent merit raise.
During oral arguments before the commission, the union proposed a different group of states to use as a comparison than the state used, arguing that Arkansas and Oklahoma should not be used in comparing wages because wages are typically low there. But the commission adopted the array of states suggested by the governor’s labor negotiators and rejected a suggestion that wages should be compared with county jails in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties that pay significantly higher wages.
Turnover of corrections officers and corporals was recently pegged at 31 percent, about double what is considered ideal. And the state spent a record $13.3 million on overtime in the past year to ensure that all posts were filled on every shift, a necessity in a prison.
Chipman said the union plans to contact Ricketts in hopes that he will resume negotiations for a raise “and not let this crisis get worse.”
“If it isn’t resolved, someone is going to be badly hurt or killed,” Chipman said.
The commission’s ruling creates a minimum salary — no increase — that can be provided but doesn’t prevent the governor from returning to his last offer, which other state workers accepted last month.
Chipman said the union’s last hope would be for the Nebraska Legislature to take action.
One bill pending in the Legislature, introduced by State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, would create different classifications of workers, such as corrections corporal I, II and III, thus allowing higher pay for experienced workers. And Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln has proposed capping the number of hours worked by a corrections officer at no more than 12 hours a day, rather than the current practice of working two eight-hour shifts, or 16 hours, a day.
The Ricketts administration has provided bonuses and other incentives to work in the prisons with the worst staffing problems and is transporting 60 corrections officers a day from Omaha to Tecumseh to fill posts at a rural prison there.