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N.M. county looks for ‘casual’ COs to address ‘perennial understaffing’

The part-time hires would make the same starting hourly wage as regular MDC correctional officers — $20.34 per hour and $21.36 after probation — and qualify for a $2,500 hiring bonus

By Jessica Dyer
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In an effort to address perennial understaffing at its jail, Bernalillo County is now prepared to hire so-called “casual” guards to help man the facility.

The county commission without discussion on Tuesday approved 40 new part-time correctional officers for the Metropolitan Detention Center — employees who could be “called on short notice on an occasional or irregular basis,” according to the county’s written explanation of the plan.

Officials see it as a potential backstop at a facility where there are more empty guard positions than actual guards. The part-time hires would make the same starting hourly wage as regular MDC correctional officers — $20.34 per hour and $21.36 after probation — and qualify for a $2,500 hiring bonus, but would not receive the standard county benefits.

County Manager Julie Morgas Baca said they will be people with a corrections background who go through some additional training — she called it a “condensed,” two-week academy. The county can bring them in to fill empty shifts that no regular, full-time employees volunteered to work on an overtime basis.

They would ideally prevent the county from having to force overtime on full-time guards, Morgas Baca said. “We are willing to do everything and anything ethically to make that facility ... a better place for folks to work and just to improve the quality of their lives and of the inmates’ (lives),” she said.

Getting and keeping employees at MDC is a chronic problem; as of mid-August, there were 239 vacant jobs across the facility. The vacancy rate for correctional officers specifically stood at 53%. Leaders have had to call a state of emergency at the facility on multiple occasions this year to force guards to take overtime shifts, and lockdowns due to manpower shortages have kept inmates from showering or accessing phones for days at a time. The county has worked to make the job more attractive, raising guards’ pay by 13% this summer.

Morgas Baca said the administration is also trying to improve on-site conditions, doing what she called “some extra, really, really deep cleaning” and planning an employee lounge space with some better food options, such as a salad bar.

“Being in a facility that you feel comfortable and proud of is real important, so we’re taking extra measures to just make sure the facility is clean and sanitary,” she said. The county has a similar “casuals” program at its juvenile detention facility, known as the Youth Services Center, which also has a vacancy rate of about 50%.

There are four to six casual hires in the rotation, according to Deputy County Manager Greg Perez. He said they have gone through training and that the county relies on them as a “last resort” when trying to avoid forcing regular employees to take overtime shifts they do not want. But Perez said the county has not hired a new casual employee in years.

“It has worked for us historically; it’s been a benefit at YSC, but it’s definitely not a fix-all,” Perez said. While the county has had sustained difficulty hiring permanent guards at MDC, Morgas Baca said she believes it is possible to find some part-time help.

“I’ve received calls from individuals who have expressed interest, and I’m really hoping that they’ll follow through and that they’ll apply,” she said.