Corrections workers protect us all although the work they do is hidden from the view and consciousness of most Washingtonians. This difficult work involves many sacrifices, so many that our state’s prison system has a serious problem recruiting and retaining qualified staff.
The state Legislature has an opportunity to address these shortcomings in its current budget. In doing so, it can improve the safety and well-being of communities across our state.
Our state’s corrections workers earn much less than their peers. Custody officers, the most common job classification, earn 55 percent less than those doing the same work in county-run facilities, according to financial experts at an independent research group. Mental health counselors earn 53 percent less than their peers. Cooks, 39 percent less.
Correctional employees haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment or a general wage increase for six years, and they have seen their real earnings shrink by more than 10 percent. Some full-time workers’ families qualify for public assistance.
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These substandard wages are for hard, dangerous work. Corrections workers suffer much higher rates of depression, PTSD, suicide, divorce, heart ailments, and diabetes than the rest of us. Their rates of serious on the job injuries are among the worst in the state. An independent arbitrator considered these facts alongside the condition of the state’s finances and awarded corrections employees a contract with 5.5 percent and 4.3 percent wage increases in 2015 and 2016 respectively, amounts found to be fiscally feasible by the state’s Office of Financial Management.
It is now up to the Legislature to confirm the contract in the coming state budget.
The contract would begin to close the earnings gap between state corrections workers and their peers. It would help retain the experienced staff who are best able to prepare offenders for life after prison; high staff turnover undermines the evidence-based programing and rehabilitative work that is key to preventing recidivism. It would also help address the safety problems caused by having high numbers of inexperienced employees supervise dangerous felons.
As an additional benefit, approving the corrections contract would help our state’s economy. We ran the contract salary figures through the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’ impact model and found that a fully-funded DOC contract would generate $527 million of economic activity statewide.
Legislators in Olympia have the power to provide this economic boost, improve public safety and recognize the valuable service of these men and women who risk their lives every day to keep us all safe. Let’s hope they wield their power wisely.