Nearly 4K SC corrections employees to receive $500 bonuses

The money is coming from dollars already allocated to the department, but hasn't been spent yet due to vacancies


By Joseph Bustos
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a year when state employee hazard pay for coming into work amid a pandemic was rejected by State House members, bonuses will still go to Department of Corrections employees.

More than 3,900 corrections employees who work directly with inmates, such as corrections officers, medical personnel and food services workers, this week will receive $500 bonuses, the Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The State.

Bonuses for the 3,942 employees are coming from dollars already allocated to the department but that haven't been spent because of a high number of vacancies, which currently stand at more than 1,300 security positions.

Over the years, the department has worked to retain and attract employees by offering signing bonuses for positions such as corrections officers and medical personnel in order to compete with county jails and hospitals.

"This is what we deal with all the time in corrections; it's never easy," Stirling said. "We've been understaffed and out-manned for a long time now. And I thought, people that were showing up to work and working with the folks inside deserved recognition."

The bonuses also come during the holiday season as the department projects it will have the extra money available.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do," Stirling said. "You never know what the new year is going to bring."

Legislators tried to find ways to pay state workers more during the pandemic, but ultimately those efforts failed.

State senators approved a budget in September and included $1,000 hazard pay for state employees earning less than $50,000 a year. However, that plan did not receive a vote in the House, which sent the budget back to committee where it died as the session ended.

An additional effort in the House to use federal COVID-19 relief money for state worker hazard pay was voted down.

Instead, lawmakers opted to keep spending levels the same as the 2019-20 fiscal year without allocating any additional state dollars, wanting to be cautious as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the economy and state revenues.

Stirling said the bonuses Corrections is able to award, as in the past, also are meant to help with retain employees.

In 2018, Corrections employees received $1,000 bonuses after a budget increase. Some employees also received a $750 retention bonuses.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state prisons agency has had more than 2,400 inmates and more than 600 staff members test positive for COVID-19.

Currently 116 inmates are positive for COVID-19 in the state's prison system. The highest amount of inmates on any day during the pandemic was Sept. 4, when 1,113 inmates were positive with COVID-19, the agency said.

Stirling argued corrections staff does a lot of the same work as front-line medical workers and nursing home employees, who are more likely to receive media attention.

"They're the quiet heroes during this pandemic because they are coming to work, ... you could make the argument, risking their lives just like others who are going to medical facilities and hospitals," Stirling said. "They're true heroes to me."

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(c)2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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