Ohio county offers COs raises, attendance bonuses amid sharp drop in staff

If approved, officers at the state's largest county jail would go from some of the lowest-paid in the state to some of the highest

By Adam Ferrise
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County officials offered substantial raises to jail officers— in some cases more than $6 an hour— to attract more officers and retain current ones as the jail in recent months suffered from a sharp drop in staffing.

The offer, which still requires approval by the officers' union and County Council, would raise the starting salary for a new hire from $19.12 to $24 per hour. Existing officers will also get substantial raises, a sticking point that led to the union rejecting a proposed raise for new hires in February.

Officers at the Cuyahoga County jail would get a $1,000 bonus for perfect attendance during each quarter of the year.
Officers at the Cuyahoga County jail would get a $1,000 bonus for perfect attendance during each quarter of the year. (Cory Shaffer/cleveland.com)

If approved, it could take officers at the state's largest county jail from some of the lowest-paid in the state in 2019 to some of the highest. The union will vote on the offer from Aug. 17-Aug. 20.

The offer would raise those with a year on the job from $19.77 to $25 an hour and anyone with two years from $20.81 to $26 an hour. Those with three or more years could go from anywhere between $21.85-$25.49 to $28 per hour. Officers would still get a 2 percent raise at the beginning of 2022, which was negotiated during a 2019 raise.

The offer comes with incentives for officers' attendance, an issue that plagued the jail for years as low staffing forced officers to work overtime under more demanding conditions. Officers would get a $1,000 bonus for perfect attendance during each quarter of the year.

Other changes to the contract would include that an officer could be subject to punishment if they do not work mandatory overtime shifts and that officers must take a drug test following a "critical incident," such as a use of force or death at the jail.

Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan acknowledged the staffing shortage. She said there are 576 officers at the jail, and the county needs at least 650.

"It is increasingly difficult for us to attract and retain anyone in law enforcement, especially corrections officers," Madigan said. "With everything that happened with the pandemic, the job of a corrections officer is even less attractive."

Madigan said the county's human resources department compared their officers' salaries to other county's in the area and found Cuyahoga County was "not competitive."

"We want to be able to make it attractive for officers," Madigan said. "We want to do everything we can to attract and retain more officers."

With overtime pay factored in, officers could end up making about $67,000 per year, which would make them the highest-paid corrections officers in Northeast Ohio, according to Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association attorney Adam Chaloupka. He said starting salaries would also be among the highest in the area.

"It puts us among the most highly competitive wages in the state, certainly in Northeast Ohio," Madigan said.

In 2019, the county jail experienced a crisis where nine inmates died in 11 months, and others were beaten or mistreated by officers. Cleveland.com reporting revealed that Cuyahoga County officers were the second-lowest paid in the state. New officers in 2019 made $15.31, slightly less than cooks at the jail.

Officials approved a raise — to $18 for starting officers— which helped increase the staffing levels from a low of about 550 in 2018 to 705 in February 2020. Since then, officers retired or left to work elsewhere at a rapid rate. There are about 576 officers in the jail. Madigan said the jail needs at least 650 officers.

The issue was less pronounced in early 2020 when officials released about 900 inmates accused of low-level, non-violent crimes from the jail during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the jail with only about 950 inmates, an all-time low.

The number of inmates since has steadily increased. The 1,648 inmates in the jail on Monday are the most since the pandemic-fueled releases.

The offer for new raises is an attempt to shore up the staffing shortage, which in turn helps a myriad of issues for inmates and officers, Chaloupka said.

A fully-staffed jail means officers are less often forced to work overtime shifts and would prevent officer burnout. It also means inmates are locked down less often. This is a longstanding issue at the jail that contributed to the string of deaths in 2018 and came to the forefront again last week after jail officials started using a new type of inmate lockdown during staffing shortages.

Sheriff Christopher Viland stopped the new lockdowns — in which one officer supervised two clusters of inmates, one that was locked in their cells while the other inmates mingled in common areas — after the union complained that the practice was unsafe for inmates and officers.

On Saturday, inmates in the maximum-security portion of the jail refused to go into lockdown. The inmates damaged the cell area— though the county hasn't provided specifics. A sheriff SWAT team shot pepper-balls into the cell to force the inmates back into their cells.
(c)2021 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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