Help Wanted: Corrections officers

Published: Mar. 15, 2022 at 5:51 PM EDT
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ST. ALBANS TOWN, Vt. (WCAX) - The pandemic has taken its toll on staffing in many different sectors, causing many businesses to close and others to work remotely. But there are some critical state services, like correctional facilities, that can’t afford to close regardless of worker availability. As part of our ongoing series on high-demand jobs, Kayla Martin takes us inside the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town to see how they’re trying to bail themselves out of the worker shortage.

“I think it was tough to convince people that this was the environment to work in during the pandemic,” said Matthew Engels, a shift supervisor at the Northwest State Correctional Facility. Like many workplaces, the prison is also having a hard time getting employees in the door, a problem most state prisons were having pre-pandemic. “It seemed like the tap got shut off.”

“We are certainly far lower than we want to be,” said Vt. Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml. “When we don’t have the total staff we need, it becomes harder to manage some of our programs.” He says the lack of workers also puts both staff and inmates at risk.

“I feel the more officers we have in here, the more vigilant we can be and the more we can help not only ourselves and our co-workers but the incarcerated individuals as well,” said Monique Collins, a corrections officer at NWSCF. Collins says it’s always good to have more eyes and different perspectives.

Engel says the staff shortage also leads to burnout for those who have to fill the shifts. “Used to be the joke – 7 hours and 55 minutes of boredom and 5 minutes of terror,” Engel said. “You’re tired, so you’re working 12, 16 hours, then maybe having an 8-hour turn around into another long shift.”

Deml says there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for the current crop of overworked officers. “We’ve seen a nice uptick in recruitment in the last year or so,” he said.

In addition to the challenges from the pandemic, some staff say there’s also a public perception problem with the profession. “See the TV shows, see the movies don’t realize the pride that we take here as officers,” said Kenneth Phaneuf, a corrections officer at NWSCF. “We spend the day in and day out trying to make a difference in ourselves, as well as the community and the individuals that we protect.”

The Department of Corrections realizes in order to get more workers in the door they needed to invest in people. They currently start officers off at $19.42 an hour and bump them up to $20.35 after six months. After 18 months, officers make $21.06 an hour, not to mention the extra cash that comes with overtime and irregular shifts. They also are giving sign-on and retention bonuses. Corrections officials say they are looking for candidates with integrity and who are willing to work overtime.

“This job can be hard but at the end of the day I know everyone here has my back,” Collins said.

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