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Finding fixes to fill critical roles

Matt Pommer

Wisconsin prison officers, sergeants and youth counselors will get 80-cent-per-hour pay increases later this month in an effort to solve short staffing and recruitment problems.

Those working at maximum security prisons and youth prisons will also receive an additional 50-cent hourly increase for a seven-month period, the Department of Corrections has announced.

The pay package is estimated to cost $10 million. It is a stunning move for the Walker administration, which has a record of scaling back or limiting compensation for public employees. But Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher knows the situation well and advocated for the increases.

Litscher led the former Department of Employment Relations for eight years under former Gov. Tommy Thompson. In that position, he oversaw contract negotiations with the Wisconsin State Employees Union. In 1999, at Thompson’s request, he left employee relations to take up the reins at corrections department where he served until 2003.

In February, Gov. Scott Walker called Litscher back into state service to serve again as DOC secretary, replacing Ed Wall, who resigned in the wake of allegations of misconduct in the operation of youth-prison facilities. Litscher told state senators during his confirmation hearing the public had lost confidence in the DOC and he wanted to reduce forced overtime.

Prison employees have been working substantial overtime to cover staff shortages, and in the long run, that forced overtime has hurt morale. Last year, it was reported that 10 percent of staff positions were unfilled. The shortage rate was 20 percent at the maximum security prison at Portage.

There also have been severe staffing shortages at the youth prisons in northern Wisconsin. Those institutions are under a federal investigation looking into allegations that staffers abused young people.

Compounding the prison-staffing challenges facing the state, more than half of existing correctional employees across Wisconsin will be eligible for retirement within the next 10 years.

Wisconsin prisons are scattered across the state with the result that some of the rural locations limit the potential for recruitment because of a smaller available workforce. As anywhere in the state, corrections workers undergo substantial training; applicants and incumbent employees must be drug-free and without criminal records.

Curbs on collective bargaining also have had an impact on prison-employee morale. Over the years, safety issues were among critical questions in contract negotiations between the state and employees union.

Rick Badger, executive director of Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said money will help the staffing situation, but day-to-day working conditions will remain a concern.

However, state corrections is not the only area in which governments are facing recruitment issues. Rural schools report difficulties in finding new teachers.

The shortage of teachers has been a major topic in local school districts across the state — especially critical in the rural parts of the state where it is difficult to recruit recent college graduates.

Several school leaders say recent college graduates seem to prefer the various social opportunities in urban areas. One study showed that less than five percent of new teachers are interested in jobs in rural areas.

There have long been difficulties in most districts in recruiting multilingual teachers and those for children with special needs. But in rural areas, some districts are scrambling even to find English and math teachers, people at the very heart of the educational process.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said some state help is needed to attract teachers to the rural areas. One suggestion would be to forgive college loans in return for working a number of years in those districts.

"We can’t allow our classes not to be staffed with teachers," Evers said. Nor can the state operate prisons and youth camps without qualified staff.

Matt Pommer, a retired reporter for the Capital Times, writes a column distributed by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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