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‘It’s a staffing shortage crisis': Union reps raise concerns over shortage of COs at USP Lewisburg

“Officers are the forgotten keepers in the Bureau,” the union said. “We work under stress, mission changes and rise to the occasion every time, doing more with less”

USP Lewisburg

There are currently 48 vacant CO positions and another two or three will open soon as guards retire.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

Marcia Moore
The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.

LEWISBURG, Pa. — U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg union representatives are raising concerns about a continued shortage of correctional officers (COs) at the medium-security prison in Union County.

There are currently 48 vacant CO positions and another two or three will open soon as guards retire, said Local 148 President Stephanie Hoffa.

Overall, USP Lewisburg is authorized for a total of 459 staff — 210 of them are COs — and has been able to fill 392 positions, of which 171 are corrections officers, she said. That has the federal prison housing about 971 inmates at just below 84 percent of its staffing needs, Hoffa added.

“Across the United States, law enforcement agencies struggle to hire officers,” said Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spokesman Benjamin O’Cone. “We have committed significant resources to recruiting and hiring” which includes a “multi-platform approach to attract qualified job applicants including using social media for awareness and recruitment, hosting and participating in recruitment fairs, and collaborating with other federal agencies to identify prospective candidates.”

Fueling the correctional officers staffing shortage, union reps say, is low pay for a position requiring a four-year degree, or three years of supervisory experience, as well as a good financial history.

The hourly starting salary of officers at the Lewisburg prison is $22.28, or $46,495 a year. Over the next three pay steps the hourly salary increases to $26.43 an hour, or $55,162 annually.

The average length of service of an officer at USP Lewisburg is 25 years and, according to the prison pay scale “they would max out” at a salary of $70,679, said Hoffa. And, she said, retirement benefits are calculated on base pay.

“COs are the backbone of the institution and the lowest paid. Who’s going to risk their lives for this amount of money,?” said union secretary/treasurer Matthew Barth. “There’s no incentive. It’s a staffing shortage crisis.”

As a result, COs are required to work overtime if an officer calls in sick.

“Morale is bad,” Hoffa said.

Making the situation worse, she said, the BOP’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on Nov. 30 sent out an internal memo to all federal prison human resource administrators regarding a new pay schedule for several prisons, which included USP Lewisburg and indicated there would be a 30 percent pay hike for employees there.

Another memo was released very shortly after indicating USP Lewisburg was included in error.

“USP Lewisburg was inadvertently listed as being one of these affected facilities. Immediately after the memorandum was sent (within 30 minutes), the mistake was noted and corrected,” said O’Cone. “Following this, an accurate listing of all affected facilities was posted on our intranet page for all employees to view. USP Lewisburg was not one of the facilities listed by OPM as being affected by the new locality pay definitions.”

Barth said he believes it was a mistake.

“I don’t think it was malicious. It was ineptitude of management,” he said.

Former Local 148 President Andrew Kline, who waited three years after applying for a job in the federal system before getting hired 27 years ago and retired from USP Lewisburg in 2021, said staffing has been an issue “for years” but is now at a critical stage.

Despite the union for years asking for better pay and updating the pay scale to keep pace with inflation and area employers’ wages, Kline said, little has been done to help attract and retain federal correctional officers which makes it difficult to fill the positions.

“We can’t even compete with local police departments,” said Hoffa, despite raising the age of eligible federal prison CO applicants from 37 to 40.

The BOP’s recent “inadvertent” mistake of posting salary increases for USP Lewisburg employees “is a slap in the face,” said Hoffa.

Particularly, she said, since staffing shortages across the federal system are so widespread.

Federal prisons employ 12,731 across the country and are allotted and funded for 7,700 more, said Barth.

“Those positions are funded. Where’s the money?” he said. “There is no oversight on where that money goes.”

When asked about these numbers and where the money is for the unfilled positions, O’Cone responded that according to the BOP there are 12,385 active COs and only 14,886 authorized positions.

He did not respond to The Daily Item’s inquiry about the whereabouts of the money received for those unfilled positions.

In addition to ongoing recruitment efforts, O’Cone said the BOP “is taking steps to ensure that its compensatory offers are competitive with those from private and federal entities.”

So far, it hasn’t been enough, union reps say. Kline said he could have worked seven more years, but had enough of the lack of appreciation after 25 years. Hoffa and Barth said they will also depart as soon as they’re eligible for retirement.

“Officers are the forgotten keepers in the Bureau,” Barth said. “We work under stress, mission changes and rise to the occasion every time, doing more with less.”

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