Study: Low Mass. jail employee morale leads to high turnover

Rockingham County House of Corrections study is critical of the jail's management

By Doug Ireland
The Eagle-Tribune

BRENTWOOD — A newly released study of the Rockingham County House of Corrections is critical of the jail's management and says low employee morale has led to high turnover.

The 121-page study, requested by the county commissioners, recommends the county take measures under Superintendent Stephen Church to correct problems at the facility. The months-long study by Matrix Consulting Group of California began in December and cost the county about $30,000.

Among the most significant suggestions in the report is that the county resolve issues affecting the morale of corrections officers at the 105-employee jail.

"Because of relatively high turnover levels, overtime rates are high," the study said. "While this is a cost-effective approach, it has led to morale issues and contributes to the turnover problem."

County commissioners said they are concerned about the study's findings, but not completely surprised because of a five-year stalemate in contract talks with corrections officers.

The failure of the union to reach a contract has left many employees bitter, according to Church and commissioners.

"There are some happy people who do a great job and then there's a disgruntled group," Commissioner Kevin Coyle said. "We will address these issues ... I think we have to take the employee morale issue and deal with it the best we can." 

Church said the employees are unhappy because new corrections officers are earning a starting wage of $14 per hour, the same as five-year officers. 

"Now, my problem is hanging onto these employees," he said.   

Commissioners said they were disappointed that less than 20 percent of employees bothered to respond to the consultant's survey. More than 60 percent of employees typically respond to the group's surveys, the study said.

"As the results of the survey demonstrate, there are many issues between labor and management that could affect the response rate," the study said.  

Commissioner Thomas Tombarello said the consultant has been asked to contact more employees at the jail and to submit those opinions.

"I would like to see at least half of them give input," he said.

Low morale has led to many employees leaving for other jobs, forcing the jail to pay excessive overtime, the study said. The corrections department racked up more than 8,000 hours in overtime last year, the equivalent of paying four additional employees, the study said

"The overtime is a killer," Tombarello said.

He said the county has been forced to spend more than $200,000 in overtime to jail employees in each of the last two years.   

The study also cites a high number of employees terminated at the jail. There were 12 terminated in 2013, the highest number since 2009, when there were nine.  

"Additionally, the past five years have seen levels greater than those of the three years from 2006 to 2008," the study said.  

In addition, the study calls for the use of more pretrial and alternative sentencing programs in the county to help reduce the average inmate population of approximately 300.   

The study also says the jail's overall supervision could be improved. The commissioners, including Chairman Katherin Pratt, said they will work with Church to make those improvements.

They said Church is a good superintendent and would be retained. He has been superintendent for four years.

"The study shows management is an issue," Tombarello said. "I think there are some things there that we don't want to see continue."

Those include the embezzlement of more than $30,000 by former office administrator Anne Marie Nelson of Chester. She pleaded guilty earlier this year to padding the paychecks of her husband, a corrections officer at the jail.

Then, last month, a 19-year jail employee was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly selling morphine at the jail last spring. His court case is pending.

Coyle said Church would benefit from more training as a supervisor, an issue he said would be addressed.

"I think he's a good superintendent, but may not be the best manager," Coyle said. 

Church, who said he recommended the study, defended his leadership and employees, but said he will work with commissioners to improve.

"I say my training speaks for itself," he said. "Our staff is exceptional."

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