Pa. prison proposes $500 referral bonus and $500 signing bonus for new COs
Westmoreland County Prison warden says burnout and low starting pay are two top hurdles to retaining and recruiting COs
By Joe Napsha
GREENSBURG, Pa. — The Westmoreland County Prison has put out a "help wanted" sign for guards — 29 in all.
"We definitely have an urgent need for corrections officers," Warden Bryan Kline said during a prison board meeting this week.
Kline said the county has made "significant progress" in reducing the number of vacancies since he was hired in February 2021, but it remains an issue. The county has 158 corrections officers to guard 496 inmates, Kline said.
In an effort to attract more job candidates, Kline proposed the county offer a $500 bonus for new corrections officers who remain on the job for 960 hours — essentially 24 weeks on a 40-hour work week — and a $500 bonus for existing employees who refer a successful candidate for a job, as long as that employee also stays in the position for 24 weeks.
The proposal has to be approved by the Westmoreland County Salary Board, which is not scheduled to meet until Dec. 15. The salary board includes the three county commissioners and Controller Jeff Balzer .
Kline said he is hoping to conduct on-the-spot interviews next month, in addition to having candidates perform agility tests. The board approved hiring two corrections officers, while accepting the resignations of four others.
In the meantime, with so many vacancies, there is mandatory overtime for the guards covering three shifts. In October, Kline said, guards worked 3,213 hours of overtime at a cost of $119,644.
Among the reasons for a shortage of officers is job burnout, Kline said, noting research shows that 60% of corrections officers leave the job early because of it.
Starting pay is another hurdle to hiring. Corrections officers are paid a starting wage $17.72 an hour, increasing to $23.75 an hour after 1,920 hours on the job, Kline said.
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The county's problems aren't unique and are being experienced across the region, Kline said.
"All prison systems are hurting," Kline said.
Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson said there said the county is seeking corrections officers but declined to comment on specifics.
County lockups must compete with the state Department of Corrections for guards.
The state corrections department has about 770 vacancies among its corrections staff, with about 50 to be hired next month and another 250 candidates being processed for jobs, said Maria Bivens, a state spokeswoman. The state has sought corrections officers by staffing job fairs, Bivens said.
"There is a big push to get corrections officers," said John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, a Harrisburg-based group representing about 9,500 employees.
In 2019, before covid impacted the nation, there were 93 vacancies for corrections officers in the state system, Eckenrode said. There were 1,037 vacancies in October.
Because of the shortage of officers, Eckenrode said, the state corrections department has the officers working 16-hour days.
"There is a ton of overtime, and the majority of it is mandatory," Eckenrode said, noting such hours contribute to burnout.
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