By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
Last year the Idaho Department of Correction paid out approximately $5 million for almost 300,000 hours of overtime. The department averaged a worker shortage of 87 people throughout the year, with spikes in the summer when construction jobs have a tendency of luring away correction workers.
“There’s certainly an element of exhaustion and being tired and added stress,” said Josh Tewalt, Director of the Idaho Department of Correction. “The secondary piece is just how tough it can be on families. They’re the ones that also have to bear that burden when they don’t know when Mom or Dad is gonna be able to come home.”
Excessive overtime has an emotional price tag. “There are enough stressors inherent to working in a correctional facility,” said Tewalt. “You don’t need to add to it.”
That emotional price tag can lead to attrition. “You have to think of it in the terms of tolerance threshold,” said Tewalt. “People will put up with only so much crap for this much money. When you get out there and you actually feel the impact it has on staff, it’s like, man, this isn’t something that can wait. We’ve got to get to work on this right now.”
Overtime creates a cycle that leads to more overtime. People get sick from working the extended hours. “They’re tired they’re exhausted and guess what happens,” said Tewalt. “You’re sick calls go up.”
People quit or find other employment because they don’t want to work 16-hour shifts in a dangerous environment. They can find a similar wage at Costco with less stress and more dependable hours.
“It’s not reasonable to expect that we’re ever going to have zero percent turnover because we are competing against other law enforcement and other entry-level jobs,” said Tewalt. “It is a very unique line of work and it takes a very unique person to see how rewarding that can be.”
The overtime also has a financial cost. Idaho Reports analyzed the average wages and benefits required to fill the 87 positions and compared it to the overtime costs accrued last year and found that the overtime cost was over $1.5 million more than filling all the vacant positions.
The staffing problems also dictate how the Department of Correction deals with issues like out of state prisons. Entering this year’s legislative session a proposal was discussed to build another Idaho detention facility. The proposed facility would allow Idaho prisoners currently housed in two private prisons in Texas to come home. If those prisoners came home, they would be able to more easily meet with family members during visitor hours, creating a link to the community they will eventually reenter. Strong family and positive relationships within the community are a strong indicator of recidivism and successful outcomes after incarceration.
With the staffing crisis currently happening in Idaho, the possibility of finding hundreds of more workers to staff a new prison seems unlikely, leaving the two Texas prisons as seemingly the only short-term option.
Tewalt and Gov. Brad Little have some ideas about how to solve the problem. Filling those positions will take some changes. One of those changes is money. “It’s really hard here in the valley with what the prison over in Ontario Oregon pays,” said Little.
“We’ll never be able to afford to pay them what I think they’re worth,” said Tewalt. “But we’ve got to be able to give them enough that they can afford to stay doing something that they love.”
The other portion is creating a scheduling and work environment that works for the correction employees. Arranging schedules to fit the needs of the institutions, the workers and the incarcerated could not only effect worker retention, but could have a positive effect on outcomes.
“We talk about needing improved outcomes in the community,” said Tewalt. “We talk about needing to have people coming out of prison in a better position to be successful in the community. We won’t do any of that unless we shore up our workforce.”
Providing education and training for inmates to help them be successful when they reenter communities is impossible without people to teach them and facilitate the programs they need.
The director’s solution is two-fold: Better wages and better personnel management. “If we hit both of them hard, if we’re able to affect the amount of money that’s going in their pockets, and we’re able to affect their satisfaction with the work they do, then these numbers will improve,” said Tewalt.
This isn’t just about correction workers and inmates. The vast majority of people incarcerated in Idaho will eventually become your neighbor, your coworker or possibly just a stranger walking down your street. The time spent in a correctional facility has a huge impact on how the incarcerated act when they receive their liberty back and rejoin the Idaho community.
“Our number one obligation is to keep Idahoans safe and that includes our employees,” said Little. “There is a problem and I think that Director Tewalt is doing a good job.”
The job, however, will not be completed overnight, and if this two-part plan doesn’t work or isn’t supported, the next options could be even more costly and more difficult.