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Corrections officers plan lobbying for pay raise

BY KATHLEEN FOX kfox@paducahsun.com

EDDYVILLE - A group of state employees is targeting the upcoming legislative session as an opportunity to cement cost of living raises and reduce the turnover of employees in the Corrections Cabinet.

The Lake Barkley Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and current and retired staff members from the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville and the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia met Monday at Lee S. Jones Park in Eddyville to begin a letter writing and phone calling campaign and discuss the importance of a pay increase for corrections officers.

Larry Bland, regional FOP president, said the grassroots effort is based on state statute 196.160, which was enacted in 2002 but never fulfilled. The legislature instituted a career retention program for those working in a state correctional institution and set incremental raises for staff members biennially between two and 10 years on the job.

"Law officers should be thinking about making this a career instead of worrying about feeding their family and covering their insurance payments," Bland said.

He said the need for the increase pay is two-fold: to stop the turnover rate and ensure a highly trained and competent workforce. Bland emphasized hope that this issue along with raises for teachers would come to the forefront of the legislative session.

Kentucky ranks 49th nationally in median hourly wage and more than $13,000 less than the national average in annual pay, he said.

Garyth Thompson, lieutenant at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, said there has been a significant change in the construction of correctional office staffs, as few employees have more than five years of experience. He emphasized the potential safety and monetary issues with having such a relatively new workforce.

"We are battling inexperience with experienced convicts: who do you think will win? In any use of force situation, the better trained the staff members, the better the outcome will be."

Thompson said the benefits of a knowledgeable staff that has gained experience over years on the job ensures a rapport with prisoners and experienced officers who are available to train those new to the profession.

He said currently correctional officers are training someone new within a month of finishing their probationary period.

"My life is worth more than the money I'm getting paid," he said. "We have to start this fight somewhere, and you can't win a fight if you don't throw any punches."

It costs about $15,000 per employee for a three-week training program per Kentucky Department of Corrections Institution standards.

There were 949 new appointments of 3,244 total employees, which is nearly one-third of the workforce, during the 2013 fiscal year. The state prison system almost lost 25 percent of its workforce last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Will Thomas, captain at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, warned that without an increase, the cycle of losing veteran employees due to low pay and dangerous circumstances will continue and could led to harmful consequences.

"In 1986 we had the bloodiest six months in history, and history will repeat itself if nothing is done," he said. "The cost of living, gas and food keeps going up but our wages don't."

The group is asking for $50 to $75 additional pay per month for every two years of service to the state Department of Corrections. In the current system, a new employee with no prior experience and one with five years are earning the same salary. He said employees should sign a contract that mandates prorated reimbursement if the individual doesn't stay on the job for at least two years.

This will vet those looking for a temporary job and those looking for a career and put monetary resources back into the system, according to Bland.

Bland along with several other FOP representatives traveled to Frankfort following the meeting Monday night to petition lawmakers. The group plans to hold another letter writing drive as all 100 stamped enveloped were gone about 10 minutes prior to the meeting.

"We don't vote Republican or Democrat, we vote for what is best for the FOP," Bland said. "It will take a team effort to get this done."

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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