CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Gov. Jim Justice issued a State of Emergency Thursday to address critical staffing shortages at correctional facilities in West Virginia. The State of Emergency empowers the Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard to support the Department of Homeland Security with National Guard personnel sufficient to alleviate staffing shortages at adult and juvenile correctional and detention facilities.
During the 2022 Legislative Session, Justice directed representatives from the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security (HLS) and Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) to engage with a bipartisan group of legislators in order to sponsor a bill that would have afforded a $10,000 locality pay adjustment for Correctional Officers across the state where locality pay is necessary for maintaining critical missions of safety and security and to preserve the DCR’s ability to recruit and retain employees in a competitive manner.
Unfortunately, that bill was stalled in the House of Delegates, and despite being voted out of the House Finance Committee, the full House never got the opportunity to vote on the bill.
“I was disappointed by the lack of action on this bill during the legislative session,” Justice said. “Of course, we will continue to work with all stakeholders moving forward to perfect the legislation, get it reintroduced, and, ultimately, get it across the finish line, but we need to do something to address the staffing shortages in our jails right now. These are critical positions and if numbers continue to dip, failure to act could become a safety concern. That’s why I’m taking action and calling this State of Emergency now.”
Locality pay is especially needed in the Eastern Panhandle, where Correctional Officers are able to make substantially more money working as Correctional Officers in Maryland, Virginia, or Pennsylvania. An entry level correctional officer in West Vvirginia is currently starting at $33,214. That comparable entry level officer is starting at $34,380 in Virginia, $37,630 in Ohio, $40,270, in Pennsylvania, and $43,370 in Maryland. A noncompetitive starting salary coupled with the higher average cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia makes recruiting to these positions extremely difficult.
Currently, the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Hampshire County has a vacancy rate of 64%. Similarly, the Vicki V. Douglas Juvenile Center in Berkeley County has a vacancy rate of 61%.
These vacancies in the Eastern Panhandle region are overwhelming for the DCR in many aspects. The DCR has been forced to assign non-uniformed support staff to fill mandatory posts to ensure shift minimums are met. While non-uniformed staff are filling these security posts, their duties and responsibilities are delayed or delegated, which leads to delays in programming and services. Additionally, the DCR has also been forced to assign massive amounts of mandatory overtime, along with assigning Correctional Officers from other facilities to be temporarily assigned to the affected facilities to cover required shift staffing minimums. This requires DCR to pay per diem and travel expenses out of budgets that are already stretched thin.
Along with budgetary strain, the human factor of Correctional Officers having to work seemingly endless overtime, spending assigned time away from family or their immediate support system, adds additional burden and strain to an employee’s home life. These combining factors contribute to burnout and in return cause additional vacancies in other facilities.