Pa. bill proposals seek to allow hiring out-of-state corrections officer
Lawmakers want to lift an existing residency restriction that prevents Pennsylvania from hiring out-of-state corrections officers
By Eric Scicchitano
The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is struggling to hire and retain corrections officers, motivating state lawmakers to alleviate the issue through a proposed change intended to deepen the pool of potential new hires.
Rep. Clint Owlett, R- Tioga / Bradford, wants to lift an existing residency restriction that prevents Pennsylvania from hiring out-of-state corrections officers (CO).
There are 23 state prisons scattered across Pennsylvania, 11 of which are near borders with Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
State law on civil service positions requires applicants to either currently reside in the commonwealth or if they’re former residents, relocate back to Pennsylvania within six months. House Bill 1968 would amend the Prisons and Parole statute to allow out-of-state residency specifically for CO positions. The bill doesn’t address other civil service positions.
According to Owlett, the DOC is expected to seek at least $100 million in a supplemental budget request to cover additional overtime costs this year.
“It’s a big deal. Anytime someone in any field is overworked with mandated overtime, the stress levels that creates at work and potentially at home can make its way into their work. That’s not good for (COs) or the inmates,” Owlett said. “You’re not at home. You’re not the husband or dad you want to be. When you’re missing (your child’s) ballgames that creates another level of stress. It makes it harder to do the job.”
Owlett’s plan has the support of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA), the union representing more than 10,000 COs and related positions combined.
“The PSCOA supports this legislation. We’re having a hard time keeping and recruiting staff. We support all efforts to recruit top-level candidates for these critical public service positions,” PSCOA President John Eckenrode said.
Sen. David Argall, R- Carbon / Luzerne / Schuylkill, vice chair of the Senate State Government Committee, is circulating a co-sponsorship memo for his own bill. He said the language would be identical to Owlett’s proposal.
“State corrections officers put their safety on the line every single day to protect us from Pennsylvania’s most violent criminals, yet they are facing increasing challenges because of staffing shortages,” Argall said. “They need real relief now, which is why Rep. Owlett and I are working to remove the residency requirement. Since many state corrections facilities are near state borders, we believe this change will help find more candidates to fill these jobs.”
State lawmakers just settled the current budget last month, a process that’s supposed to be finalized by June 30. Budget talks for 2024-25 are already underway.
Gov. Josh Shapiro will unveil his proposal on Feb. 6 . Legislators in the House and Senate will convene departmental budget hearings shortly thereafter.
Last year, the DOC requested $148 million for overtime, far above the $100 million granted in the prior budget. Corrections Secretary Laurel Harry cited mandated overtime, calling it a “necessary evil” to operate state prisons.
The vacancy rate for COs was at 9.2% with an estimated 750 job openings when Harry testified last March, updated department data shows.
The department’s formal budget request shows the rate reached 11.3% in the third quarter of 2022. It was even higher for nurses — 15.2% across 2022.
Staff vacancies, call-offs and hospital transports for inmates drove the need for mandatory overtime, Harry said at the time. Mandatory overtime represented 22% of all overtime authorized in 2022, down from 26% in 2021 but more than twice the pre-pandemic average of 10%, DOC data shows.
For 2023, mandatory overtime dipped to 13% and the vacancy rate stood at 8.2% by year’s end, according to Maria Bivens, DOC press secretary. She withheld comment on the proposed legislation pending a formal review and declined comment on a potential supplemental appropriations request.
Owlett emphasized that his bill is specific to COs and that he wanted to avoid the complexities of addressing the civil service statute and its residency provision that applies to positions far beyond the DOC.
“That’s where we see the biggest gaping wound in trying to fill positions,” Owlett said of CO vacancies. “We need to focus our time there.”
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