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State prisons, citing worker shortage, implement 60 hour work weeks for corrections officers

Courtesy, the Vermont Department of Corrections
Corrections officers will soon be required to work 60-hour work weeks due to an acute staffing shortage at Vermont state prisons. The change is expected to be temporary.

Corrections officers at Vermont’s prisons will soon be required to work five 12-hour days a week — a temporary change to address a severe workforce shortage. The emergency measure is part of a broader plan to increase staffing and improve retention at the Department of Corrections.

The new shift schedule will take effect in late-August, though it’s already been implemented, due to staffing shortages, at two state prisons: Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury and Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

The 12-hour shifts will stabilize staffing across state prisons, give officers a more regular schedule and reduce the use of required overtime, according to the DOC. At NECC in St. Johnsbury, where the schedule has been in place since late-January, the department says staff morale is better and hiring has increased.

“We've seen staff who had left come back and get rehired because they wanted to go back on that 12-hour shift,” said Nicholas Deml, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

More from Vermont Edition: Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml on the challenges facing Vermont's prisons

Vermont isn’t the only state to switch to a 12-hour shift for corrections officers in light of staff shortages. Montana state prisonsstarted requiring 12-hour shifts last month and Colorado prison officials are considering the measure as well.

The head of the union representing corrections officers is skeptical that changing the work schedule will have a meaningful effect on staffing levels.

"It feels a lot like rearranging chairs on the Titanic," said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees' Association.

DOC needs to increase pay for corrections officers, Howard said. He pointed to Nebraska, where state officials agreed to increase pay for corrections officers by $8 an hour.

"We can change the schedules as much as the commissioner would like, but until they come to the table with a serious effort to compensate people fairly, we're going to continue to have this problem," Howard said.

DOC will have to meet with the state employee’s union before the new schedule goes into effect. DOC plans to offer officers higher hourly wages, according to Deml.

The emergency staffing plan is intended to be a stopgap measure. The goal, Deml said, is to implement a new schedule where corrections officers work seven 12-hour days and have seven days off during a two-week period.

“It will give you, basically, 50% of your time off to be with family, be with friends,” he said. “Regardless of how we structure that schedule, every staff member in a security position will get … one three-day weekend per pay period on an actual weekend.”

Deml said the prisons will be able to switch to the 50-50 schedule once they reach adequate staffing levels. The vacancy rate for corrections officers across the six state prisons is between 20% and 25%, according to Deml. He declined to give rates for specific prisons citing security concerns.

More from Vermont Public: DOC reports fifth death at Vermont state prisons this year

Staffing shortages were not a factor in any of the recent fatalities that occurred at Vermont prisons, Deml said. There have been five deaths so far this year, including two suspected suicides.

“There's been no indication that I've seen that the staffing numbers impacted any of the fatalities that we've seen,” Deml said.

Besides changing work schedules, the department staffing plan includes a market analysis and compensation study, the creation of a data team and the reorganization of DOC’s Office of Professional Standards and Compliance to include a division focused on recruitment and employee well-being.

The staffing shortage isn't the only issue that Deml, who took over the department about eight months ago, is hoping to address with these changes. A surveyof staff at the Springfield prison conducted last year by the University of Vermont found low staff morale. The prison system has also been under scrutiny since a 2019 investigation by Seven Days found sexual misconduct and a toxic culture at the state’s only women’s prison. A separate review, commissioned by the state in response to the newspaper's reporting, backed up those findings and made more than a dozen recommendations.

Deml said the reorganization of OPSC will include improving hiring, promotion and disciplinary processes. He says one goal is to get rid of the department’s ‘good old boys network.’

“So breaking those systems down and making sure that they're truly merit based, and they're predictable, and known to staff,” he said. “I think it is critical to building a culture where people feel the department is invested in them.”

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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