Missouri corrections officers may soon be seeing a small bump in their paycheck thanks to a new state operating budget.
On June 10, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed the state’s new operating budget during a ceremony at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. This budget included a 3 percent increase for state workers, as well as an additional and ongoing 1 percent increase for every two years of service, up to 20 years.
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, this salary increase created the biggest pay increase for corrections workers in the department’s history.
“I could not be more excited about this plan or more grateful for the support of House and Senate leadership, the governor and the governor’s staff,” said Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe. “Gov. Parson has demonstrated that he is committed to building the state’s workforce and that he values corrections staff, who are some of the hardest-working and most dedicated people in state government. Every day they put their own safety on the line to protect our communities.”
While corrections officers gathered around Parson in support as he signed the budget, there are some that say the pay increase is long overdue and may not solve all the issues that the department is facing. Gary Gross with Missouri Corrections Officers Association said understaffing will be an issue the department will continue to face, despite the small pay increase.
“It will definitely be a positive; we want our people to get raises,” Gross said. “Unfortunately, the state is so far behind on the pay scale as far as nation-wide, that this will help, but it’s coming at a time that the institutions are extremely understaffed. And is it enough money to draw people in to work there? No, I’m not sure it is.”
Currently, Missouri corrections officers have a starting salary of $31,288, compared to the national average of $43,550 according to the U.S. Labor Bureau Statistics. The Missouri Department of Corrections said in a press release that this pay rate contributes to the vacancy rate in the state, which peaked in September of 2018 with 848 open positions.
Karen Pojmann, Communications Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said that the consolidation of Western Missouri Correction Center and Crossroads Correctional Center will help reduce the number of unfilled positions.
"It’s very important to note that the consolidation of the prisons in Cameron will reduce the number of open positions by about 370 by the end of summer," Pojmann said. "The prison population has dropped quite a lot over the past two years, which enables us to consolidate the two prisons and transfer staff to understaffed facilities without any layoffs. That will significantly improve staffing levels in the western part of the state and will reduce strain on current staff while also improving safety. We will still a lot of openings, and we will still need more staff, but this is an enormous step in the right direction."
“This understaffing issue is going to be years before it gets resolved,” Gross said, stating that he believes there to be over 1,000 empty corrections positions. “It’s gotten to that level. People come in expecting to work a 40-hour week, then they find out after they’re in the institution that they’re going to be expected to work a 60 or 70 hour week. A big portion of them are not going to stay.”
The Missouri Department of Corrections hopes to fill some of those positions by offering a higher salary that ranges between 3 percent and 13 percent, but Tim Cutt with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association said he believes these numbers are deceptive.
“That pay raise is based on your induction pay, which means if you started 20 years ago, you would have been making a little over $20,000,” Cutt said. “It’s more money than they’ve gotten in the past few years, and we’re happy to see them have it. But they need to be a little more honest about what it is.”
According to Pojmann, the raise is based on the current induction rate.
"Someone who started 20 years ago as a COI and is still a COI will get a raise equal to 13% of $31,288 (not $20,000)," Pojmann said. "Someone who started 20 years ago as a COI and now has a different job in the department will get a raise equal to 13% of their current job class induction rate."
The funding for this increase comes in part from the consolidation of Crossroads Correctional Center with Western Missouri Correctional Center, a move that saved the department $21 million per year.
“This decision is largely driven by our dedication to finding efficiencies wherever we can in state government,” Parson said during his State of the State Address in January. “This can be done while ensuring safety, improving security and delivering a much-needed pay raise.”
Gross said he believes the decision to consolidate the two prisons helped with staffing issues, but he has concerns that security measures are not being properly followed.
“We’re under the impression that there’s maybe some things going on and some inmates moved around the state to other institutions,” Gross said. “Inmates going from Crossroads to Western, that they’re security levels are just being lowered and lessened just so they’re qualified to make that move, and our fear is that it may create potential problems at Western.”
Pojmann said that she does not believe that there will be a security issue as more security is being implemented at Western Missouri Correction Center.
"To accommodate this change, we are implementing enhanced security measures at WMCC, including: taller interior fences with additional razor wire, an additional observation tower, additional perimeter patrol vehicles, increased fence checks and improved locks. Construction of an additional, electrified layer of fencing also is underway."
Once the transfers occur, WMCC will be fully staffed, which is the best security measure of all.
Both Gross and Cutt said they are glad to see an increase for workers, but still believe the department of corrections has a way to go before corrections workers in Missouri are equal with those across the country.
“It’s not as good as a job as it used to be. They have not increased the pay enough to offset the loss of benefits.”
The pay increase will go into effect in January of 2020.