Prison looks for solutions to high employee turnover

McELHATTAN — County prison officials are grappling with solutions to historically high employee turnover.

In corrections, high employee turnover is a facet of the profession. Some studies point to role problems, stressful work interactions, work overload and poor social status as the causes. Other factors can include low pay and health and safety risks.

In October alone, three correctional officers resigned from the county prison and the county hired four full-time and three part-time correctional officers.

The standard rate for a part-time correctional officer in training in Clinton County is $11.50 an hour. The starting salary for a full-time correctional officer is $28,891 annually.

Compared to other county prisons in the state, Clinton County pays its corrections officers on the lower side.

In many cases, correctional officers are hired at the county prison where they receive mandatory training, only to move into higher paying positions at the state and federal level.

The lowest starting salary for a Pennsylvania state correctional officer working 40 hours a week is $39,725 annually with the opportunity for a salary increase up to $59, 650.

“The biggest thing we get beat up on is salary,” said Warden John Rowley of the county prison.

Rowley wants to combat high employee turnover by improving workplace culture.

“I’m trying to think of every way we can to make this an attractive facility and not lose people, as we do a lot,” he said.

At Wednesday’s prison board meeting, he suggested keeping the work week for some administrative staff at four days a week with 10 hour days.

“Staff love it,” Rowley said. “It’s a morale builder.”

The county prison is a round-the-clock operation, said Rowley. Correctional officers currently work rotating eight-hour shifts every day, meaning they get a weekend off every five weeks.

Rowley is discussing having correctional officers work rotating 12-hour shifts three and four days a week, meaning every other week they would have a three-day weekend.

Rowley said the condensed work week increases productivity. He also said four-day work weeks and three-day weekends make the workplace more flexible for employees paying for child care.

“I want you to like your job,” he said.

Judge Michael Salisbury said he wanted to compare data on workplace productivity from this year and last year before he made a decision.

“I need to be able to compare apples to apples,” he said.

Salisbury also raised concerns that keeping the work week at four days for most prison staff would encourage other county operations to shorten their work weeks.

Commissioner Pete Smeltz said the county prison could be considered separately from other county offices because of the very different, difficult nature of the workload. He did not think other county operations would be encouraged to condense their work weeks if the prison did.

Commissioner Paul Conklin, who was elected chairman of the prison board Wednesday after Commissioner Jeff Snyder renounced his title due to a heavy schedule, asked if the prison might consider reducing the probationary period of 90 days for new correctional officers so that trainees could get health care coverage sooner.

He pointed to the lack of health care coverage during the training period as a possible reason for high employee turnover.

Rowley said the commissioners would need to decide, as they make salary and benefits decisions. He also said in some cases the probationary period is 180 days.

“We may not need to link health care to performance during probation,” said Smeltz. He said the county made that decision many years ago without really understanding the effects.

“I know in the state, the new employees, they had to pay extra in the first 90 days” but they still received coverage, said Deputy Warden Jason Kormanic.

“Ninety days without benefits is alarming,” said Rowley.

Snyder said it would be productive for the board to figure out turnover issues soon, in light of the recent correctional officer hires and the amount the county spends on training.

Because of internal transfers, there is currently a part-time correctional officer opening.

Correction: Clinton County Correctional Facility Warden John Rowley suggested keeping the work week for some administrative staff at four days a week with 10 hour days. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that he suggested keeping the work week for correctional officers at four days a week with 10 hour days. Correctional officers currently work rotating eight-hour shifts.