It has taken a while—one year to be exact—but the Justice administration and the Legislature have finally agreed on a comprehensive pay increase package aimed at reducing the overwhelming shortage of jail and prison correctional officers.
During the just-completed special session, the Legislature approved an allocation of $25 million for increases in base salaries, retention payments and emergency allocations to try to attract and retain employees.
Governor Justice issued a State of Emergency one year ago tomorrow due to the staffing shortages, ordering the National Guard to fill hundreds of vacancies at adult and juvenile correctional and detention facilities.
Lawmakers failed to agree on a solution during the regular session of the Legislature earlier this year, but the Justice administration and Legislative leaders began meeting regularly after that and eventually developed the proposals that were just approved in the special session.
Lawmakers wisely tailored the fixes to specific needs, rather than simply approving across-the-board raises. Uniform correctional officers at the first three grade levels—the officers doing the most inmate management—will be among the biggest beneficiaries.
For example, the starting salary for a correctional officer will rise from $35,000 to $40,000. Plus, there is an additional $2,300 increase because of the five percent pay raise approved by the Legislature and the Governor earlier this year for employees who were on the job as of July 1.
That same officer will be making $48,000 after two years. There is also an annual $250 step increase built into the base salary for correctional officers in employment categories three through seven.
Lawmakers and corrections officials expect the significant increase on the front end will not only attract more qualified applicants, but also encourage them to stay since turnover is a significant problem.
Non-uniform employees will also get more money. The legislation funds two retention payments of $2,300 each. The first will come right away and the second in six months.
Some jails and prisons have more staffing problems than others, and the legislation addresses that. Employees at facilities with a 40 percent or more vacancy rate will receive what’s called a Critical Vacancy Pay Supplement of $5,000.
The new minimum for sergeants rises from $41,600 to $50,000. For a lieutenant, the entry level salary increases from $46,300 to $52,000, and for captain from $51,600 to $54,000.
“I’m hoping this really moves the needle for us,” Corrections Commissioner Billy Marshall told me, but he cautioned that not everyone can handle working with inmates.
“It takes a special kind of person to do this work,” he said. “It’s not for everybody.”
No, it’s not, which is why the state has had to make these significant improvements in pay. In 2017, the starting salary for a corrections officer was just $24,600, which was right at the poverty level. Marshall hopes that with these significant pay raises, working as a West Virginia Corrections Officer can be a career.
“It provides a good stable income and benefit package,” he said, “and the money is getting better.”