County taking steps to address jail staff shortage

Published 8:00 am Saturday, September 16, 2023

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In an effort to stem the continuing challenge of jail staffing issues, Mower County is taking extra steps to not only recruit people to work at the Mower County Jail, but also retain employees once they are hired.

During Tuesday morning’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Human Resource Director Kris Kohn highlighted the urgency to hire more staff as well as laid out a three-pronged approach that the county hopes will answer its recruitment and retention goals. The county accepted the plan.

“We are truly in a crisis situation with this,” Kohn told the board.

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In working with Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik and Jail Administrator James Brown, Kohn explained the plan is incentive-based.

“We’re looking at all the pathways to find that target group,” Kohn said.

The first of these is a sign-on bonus for new employees that would offer $5,000 paid out in quarterly increments over the span of the first year. The first $1,000 would be included in the first paycheck.

Anybody hired after Jan. 1, 2023 will be eligible to receive the bonus pro-rated to their start date.

However, if there is disciplinary action then there would be no payment for the quarter the action occurred

The second plan is to offer a recruitment bonus of $3,000 paid out to current or non-probationary staff members of Mower County who refer an employee to the jail and who is subsequently hired.

This payment will be pro-rated with the first payment of $1,000 to be included on the first payroll following the corrections officer’s start state.

Additional payments will then be paid in increments of $500 up to $3,000. Administrative and Human Resources staff are excluded.

The third plan is a one-time payout of a $5,000 retention bonus paid to current employees who have been working at the jail and requires the employee to have been hired before Jan. 1, 2023, and who is no longer probationary. This payment will be issued in late September.

At full staff the jail should have 36 positions, but currently that number sits at a little bit under half of that with 14 spots currently vacant, according to Sandvik.

These latest moves are just the next step in a long-running challenge  regarding hiring and retaining corrections officers and staff going back to when the new jail was constructed in 2009 and the number of jail staff was expanded.

However, Sandvik said this is the worst the situation has been.

“I can recall one time we were fully staffed within that,” Sandvik said. “But this is the first time we’ve been at such critical mass.”

Hired in July of 2021, Kohn also said this has been something her office has been working on since starting.

“This is hard work. Very meaningful work, but very hard work,” she said. “Jail has changed immensely in the last 10 years. (Officers) are dealing with people with physical and mental issues. (Staff) have gone above and beyond.”

Still, the lack of corrections officers is putting strains on Mower County’s system. Mandated by the state, jails are required to have enough staff to meet a jail’s population.

In Mower’s case, in order to reach that level staff are pulling overtime and extra shifts and at present PTO time off requests are being denied because the jail just doesn’t have the staff to cover those shifts.

“It’s been just a grind,” Sandvik said. “It’s such a difficult job to begin with and now you’re forced in on your day off.”

Sandvik said that part of the reason for the shortage is the career aspirations of those working in corrections. Often these employees are looking to advance their careers in law enforcement and with the current staffing issues law enforcement itself is facing, opportunities are numerous.

“There are so many agencies that are short,” Sandvik said. “People are really able to write their ticket and take a job they actually want.”

But there are also the stresses of the job heard from jails around the state including the lingering pressures created during the COVID-19 pandemic and in some cases negative views of law enforcement from the public.

There have been efforts in the past to bolster employee numbers at the jail, including working with the law enforcement program at Riverland Community College. Students working part time at the jail get practical experience, and if they are hired full time after graduation they keep their seniority.

It’s also an opportunity to continue growing county staff from within through the Grow Your Own Candidates Initiative.

Mower County’s struggles to fully staff the jail are not singular to the county, but rather reflect a statewide issue, though it’s unclear just how widespread because of lack of data.

“It’s something experienced all across the state,” Sandvik said. “The Sheriff’s Association is trying to work with the (Department of Corrections) and other entities for bigger solutions or emergency solutions, but if it continues to trend the way it is and gets worse, there may have to be things like regional jails looked at.”

However, regional jails come with other problems, including transportation issues and as of right now there are no firm ideas taking root at the state level.

On a local level though, officials feel that brainstorming ideas like this current approach could help alleviate some of the pressures in the near future.

“I am extremely thankful for the work our sheriff, jail administrator and county board did,” Kohn said, explaining that work being done has been more than outside the box thinking. “They have really done ‘no box’ thinking to find any possible way to stop and take care of our employees. I’m so appreciative of the work they’ve put in.”

More than that is the staff currently dealing with the crisis at the ground level.

“I’m so thankful for the dedicated staff we have and the hard work they do every day,” Sandvik said. “We truly do have a great team helping protect our community and protect and serve those who are assigned to our custody. I have great respect for their dedication. It’s truly appreciated.”