One of the factors contributing to ongoing high turnover in the Department of Correction is low pay for correctional officers.
During Monday’s special House State Government committee meeting, TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield acknowledged vacancy is always a concern, and admitted to challenges with recruiting and salary limitations. One prison competes for workers with an ice cream factory which pays its factory workers $19 an hour on average, 28-percent more than the starting pay for our correctional officers.
Throughout the hearing, Schofield was adamant that the 28-day work cycle is working, and said the current staff numbers account for expected high turnover. TDOC also stood by recent statements denying any correlation between high turnover and the 28-day schedule.
The 28-day schedule allows TDOC under a FLSA exemption to pay correctional officers overtime, time-and-a-half, after working 171 hours during a 28-day period. (TDOC says they pay overtime after 160 hours, though hours worked from 160-171 are paid at the regular hourly rate.) According to TDOC, this change allows them to more effectively manage their overtime costs. Prior to the 28-day schedule, officers received time-and-a-half after working 40 hours in a 7-day period, similar to the private sector.
Many of our TDOC members disagree with the department’s assessment of the issues. In fact, there is a major disconnect between what we are hearing from the department and what we are hearing from our members working in the prisons.
This is a complicated issue, with many moving parts. But some of the department’s issues could be fixed if correctional officers were paid a reasonable salary for the work that is required.
According to TDOC, starting pay today for a correctional officer in Tennessee is $28,440. Though, the State’s DOHR website shows as of August 3 the annual starting salary for a correctional officer is $25,776. Also, a salary search on the State’s Transparent Tennessee website shows 1,900 of 2,553 total correctional officers listed as earning $27,084 or less.
In comparison, a recent article from CNN Money stated that the average pay for a full-time retail associate at Wal-Mart is about $13 per hour, which is $27,040 per year. Correctional officers should be paid more money than retail associates at Wal-Mart.
According to the USDA’s SNAP eligibility, a one-income family of four is eligible for food stamps on a correctional officer’s salary. So, it is easy to understand how these officers, especially those with families, depend on additional overtime income to survive financially.
To his credit, the commissioner did recently make an adjustment. In a letter to officers dated July 29, the commissioner announced that effective August 1 supervisors will not be required to flex schedules to adjust overtime.
Flexing schedules allows TDOC to keep from paying premium overtime by giving employees time off equal to the number of overtime hours worked. Unfortunately, when the state pays straight time for what should be paid as time-and-a-half, workers are essentially being forced to work overtime at a discounted rate.
Nonetheless, more must be done to address TDOC’s high turnover. Tennessee needs to lead on this issue and pay our correctional officers a wage that aligns with the dangerous work environment in which they operate each day.
The Southern Legislative Conference recently published a 2014 comparative data report on adult correctional systems comparing 15 southern states. Tennessee ranked 9 of 15 for the average starting salary for a correctional officer ($25,776) and 14 of 15 for average turnover rate percentage (29.6%). TDOC’s Monday presentation listed 2015’s turnover rate as 39.6%.
Correctional officer pay is based partially on the ranges of comparable positions in the southern states. But, the average turnover rate for correctional officers among the southern states is 22.6%. Why do we base our correctional officer salaries on a pay range that we know averages high turnover? We must set our own standard.
It is time to consider a significant pay increase for Tennessee’s correctional officers.
Updated 8-13-15, 10:42 a.m.
About LaTanya McAdoo
LaTanya McAdoo is the Interim Executive Director of TSEA.
Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact her by phone: 615-256-4533 or 800-251-TSEA (8732)