The Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) had a vacancy rate of 27.4 percent, or 1,680 correctional officer vacancies by September 30, 2021, according to a November 15 report from the Public Safety Compensation Work Group. That’s an increase from the average number of vacancies between fiscal years 2018 and 2020, which ranged between 650 and 682 each year.

“There was a dramatic increase since the beginning of the pandemic,” House Appropriations Committee Analyst Michael Jay told the Joint Committee of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions and Public Safety and Senate Judiciary on Tuesday.

“Since then it has gone up about 60 each month and it is now at almost 1,700 vacancies. Some individual facilities have seen higher vacancies, with one correctional facility having turnover of 54 percent in the last calendar year,” Jay said.

“VADOC’s agency turnover rate as of July 2021 is 25.8 percent compared to the 15.7 percent rate for all state agencies. Since FY 2019, VADOC’s turnover rate has increased by 4.0 percent annually compared to a 0.3 percent annual increase for all state agencies. Workplaces experiencing high turnover struggle with continuity and consistency. VADOC security staff are experiencing conditions that can increase job dissatisfaction such as excessive overtime, burnout, and morale erosion, and which heightens job stress,” the report states.

Alongside increasing turnover, assault and workers compensation claims are also increasing. Facilities draft officers to overtime to fill necessary positions.  That’s not enough to offset vacant positions, with 404 essential posts remaining unfilled each day statewide.

The report says recruitment efforts struggle in part because starting pay for correctional officers lags behind comparable employers like the Virginia State Police, sheriff’s offices, and federal institutions. Competing agencies are directly advertising their positions at VADOC staff, who are certified. Other challenges include an already limited pool of qualified applicants. Recruiting efforts including sign-on bonuses, employee referral bonuses, advertisements, and job fairs have not been successful.

Jay summarized the recent history of correctional officer starting pay: “As you can see over the last decade, from 2009 to 2014 there was almost no growth, there were very few raises given out during that five-year period due to the Great Recession. Since that time, there have been targeted salary increases as well as across the board salary increases that has provided some catch up. So the annual rate of growth since 2014 is 3.8 percent, but has still not kept up pace with inflation.”

In the report, VADOC requested funding to increase correctional officer starting salary from $35,064 to $44,000, matching competitors. The agency also wants to address salary compression, which occurs when new employees are hired at higher wages than long-time employees. The total cost of the funding proposals is $68.65 million in each year of the next two-year budget.

The workgroup was created during the second 2021 special session to address compensation among correctional officers, deputies, and regional jail officers. During that session, legislators allocated $23.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to create a $3,000 bonus for correctional officers.

Legislators passed a motion calling for the $68.65 million funding proposal to be included in the upcoming budget. They also passed a motion calling for an additional $4,000 bonus to correctional officers before then.

“This is not an attempt to manufacture a crisis. This is not trying to create a sense of urgency artificially. That already exists. And I am concerned,” Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) said. “I am very concerned that something is going to happen in one of our facilities and you know, it’s not like this is something we haven’t seen before. We knew this was coming, and the problem is getting worse and worse and worse.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]