Evers asks for pay bump for corrections workers amid high staff vacancy rates at Wisconsin prisons

State's prisons have more than 1,500 empty correction officer and sergeant positions

Prison Bars
Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is asking state lawmakers to raise pay for corrections workers in Wisconsin’s next budget.

The plea comes as the state’s prison system struggles with high staff vacancy rates.

The governor’s budget recommendation would raise starting base pay for corrections officers from $20.29 to $33 an hour. Currently, prison security workers get a temporary $4-per-hour bonus on top of their base wages. Part of the proposed salary bump would come from making that increase permanent.

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Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr on Tuesday told lawmakers on Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee that he believes those temporary pay bumps have helped with employee retention.

“We started to see more people come in the door,” he said. “But you know, what was more significant were (fewer) people going out the back door. More people that were thinking about retirement said, ‘No, I’m gonna stick around’ and that was a real shot in the arm.”

Evers is also asking for funding to continue a $5-per-hour bonus program for workers in prisons with security staff vacancy rates above 40 percent. And he wants to raise an additional hourly bonus for maximum security employees from $2 to $4 while adding a $1 hourly bonus for workers in medium-security facilities. That’s because higher security prisons have been more difficult to staff than minimum security ones, Carr said.

There are more than 1,500 empty corrections officer and sergeant positions across all of Wisconsin’s adult prisons, amounting to a 33 percent vacancy rate, according to a Department of Corrections report covering the last pay period.

That compares to a nearly 36 percent vacancy rate at medium-security facilities and close to a 40 percent vacancy rate at maximum security lock-ups. At minimum security prisons, less than 17 percent of those positions were vacant.

Carr told lawmakers he believes higher pay can be part of the solution, though he acknowledged he couldn’t calculate exactly what wage level would be needed to keep up staffing.

“Our correctional officers deserve to be recognized for the dangerous work they do, and the lack of quality of life they endure,” he said, adding that prisons across the country have struggled to recruit staff. “I don’t know what the right number is. Nobody does. All I know is what we’re currently doing isn’t working. And all I really ask is that you consider doing something that will work. And I do believe that the governor’s recommendation in this area has a better chance of working than anything else that I’ve heard.”

The Kettle Morraine Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Plymouth, had the highest staff vacancy rate, with more than half of its corrections officer and sergeant positions sitting vacant, according to the latest pay period report. The maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution was close behind with a 50 percent vacancy rate and the medium-security Stanley Correctional Institution had a 49 percent vacancy rate.

The department has hired a marketing firm to help with recruitment, Carr said, though he cast the staffing issues as partly a symptom of a hot labor market nationwide.

Republicans who control the state Legislature say they plan to rewrite the governor’s budget proposal over the next several months. The new fiscal year takes effect July 1, and Evers, a Democrat, has the option to veto all or parts of the Legislature’s plan.

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