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Kan. COs, state hospital staff to see pay raise amid staffing shortages

A CO’s hospitalization after an inmate attack earlier this month was the “final straw” behind the decision, a union rep. said

Governor Laura Kelly

“The staff in our 24/7 facilities are the frontline workers for some of the most necessary and, frankly, thankless work that we do for Kansans,” said Governor Laura Kelly.

AP Photo/John Hanna

By Andrew Bahl
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.

TOPEKA, Kan. — About 2,400 workers at state prisons, state hospitals and state veterans’ homes will be in line for a permanent pay raise, Gov. Laura Kelly’s office announced Tuesday, a move designed to combat staffing shortages at those facilities which have reached critical levels in recent months.

The blueprint includes other bumps in compensation, including temporary pay hikes for key staffers and a one-time $3,500 bonus for salaried employees.

The estimated cost for the next fiscal year alone is over $34 million for the entire package. Existing agency funds will bankroll the initial pay increases, with Kelly’s office saying they will work with legislators to fund the rest of her plan.

“The staff in our 24/7 facilities are the frontline workers for some of the most necessary and, frankly, thankless work that we do for Kansans,” Kelly said in a statement. “These pay increases are well deserved — and my administration will continue working to support our state employees and their families.”

The base pay increases amount to one step, according to Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing state workers. That amounts to roughly a 5% increase, though it depends on where an employee falls on the pay scale.

Other temporary increases are keyed into the type of role a worker has, as well as where they work.

Nursing staff at 24/7 facilities will see a $4.50-per-hour raise; workers in facilities with a 25% vacancy rate or higher will get a $2.50-per-hour boost. The temporary raises can be combined, meaning a registered nurse could make an extra $8.50-per-hour more before accounting for a base pay increase.

Labor challenges have hit the private and public sector alike but have hit hardest in state facilities requiring around-the-clock staffing. Conversations about a policy response to the problem have been ongoing since July between Kelly’s office and stakeholders, LaFrenz said, but the “final straw” was the hospitalization of a corrections officer at Lansing Correctional Facility after being beaten by an inmate.

“At the forefront over and over again, was the safety and the staffing and the security of the workers,” LaFrenz said. “That was the overarching theme for this administration, as well as the agencies involved.”

Inmates at one of the state’s largest prisons are spending more time confined to their cells because of an ongoing staffing shortage and advocates blamed the October traffic death of a corrections officer on fatigue following a series of grueling shifts. Both Lansing and El Dorado Correctional Facilities have been under a staffing emergency since the summer months.

The state’s mental health hospitals have had similar struggles. Overall staff vacancy rates at Larned and Osawatomie state hospitals are hovering around 38%, but certain positions have even higher rates.

Corrections officers received a pay increase in 2019 and over 600 state hospital workers got a pay hike, though not at the state’s largest mental health hospital at Osawatomie.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the underlying staffing levels were worth addressing, calling them a “discussion of public safety” and pointing to longstanding staffing challenges at Larned.

He noted the state’s share of American Rescue Plan Act dollars could pay for the move. But if state funds were used, Waymaster said it was important to be explicit about how long the temporary pay hikes would last, lest they become a permanent budget item.

“Once you give a pay increase, whether that be temporary or trying to hire employees so you offer a higher wage to try and attract better candidates, very rarely do you ever walk back,” he said. “So it needs to be explicitly clear to the employees that this is temporary. I’ve already expressed to (the governor’s office) you can’t back down from this, it is very difficult.”

But LaFrenz said she was hopeful legislators would follow the governor’s lead and think big picture.

“This is the start, not the end,” she said. “And the Kansas legislature is going to have to lean in and actually put value on the work that a large amount of their constituents produce and do.”

(c)2021 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.