JACKSON, Mich — The Michigan Department of Corrections 1,800 job openings throughout the state.
It's not unusual for the department to have trouble filling jobs, but the usual number of openings is between 500 and 700. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Chris Gautz said they particularly need "corrections officers, nursing staff, as well as food service workers. Those are three mission critical positions that we need to have filled to be able to do our jobs everyday in the facilities."
There are 47 vacancies at Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, 43 vacancies at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, 33 vacancies at Parnall Correctional Facility and 16 vacancies at Cooper Street Correctional Facility. Gautz says that when a facility hits the 40 range, that sticks out.
Not having enough staff can lead to burnout. That is something the Michigan Corrections Organization has been monitoring. Byron Osborn, who is the president of the union, says this has been an ongoing issue for years and is being made worse by the pandemic.
"In the event you don't have volunteers to work overtime, that results in people being forced to work double shifts quite frequently and that's exhausting. It takes a toll on their family life. It takes a toll on their health," Osborn said.
Gautz said the department works to "make sure that we're doing everything we can so we don't have staff working back-to-back doubles, that we don't have them working hopefully multiple doubles in a week."
The COVID-19 pandemic also affected employee retention especially for those close to retirement.
"A lot of these folks had indicated to us that had it not been for the pandemic and all the conditions it's created inside of these facilities they would have worked one, two, three more years to buy us a little more time get people in the front door, but that's not happening. Many of these folks are hitting their eligibility date and they're out," Osborn said.
The pandemic has also made the job more difficult.
Nurses, for instance "have incredibly difficult jobs to begin with," Gautz said. "Providing all the basic healthcare services that prisoners need on a daily basis and then you throw on top of it, 'OK now we need to test every prisoner and every employee in that prison once a week,' and 'Oh now, we're going to start doing vaccines, and continue to do the work you were doing before, and you might have several staff that have gone off because they have COVID or they were a close contact so now you're doing their job on top of your job.'"
Gautz said the department they can't fill every position immediately because they wouldn't be able to afford it.
"This doesn't fall right on the lap of the MDOC," Osborn said. "They're only allocated the money the legislature allocates for them. If they get appropriated money to hire 700 officers next year, that's all they've got. They can't take it upon themselves to go out and hire 1,400 officers."
The Department of Corrections plans on working with state legislators in hopes of receiving more money to fill these vital positions.
But Osborn said there are other issues.
"The main reason we've struggled in putting a dent in the vacancies is that over the past decade or so the state of Michigan has continued to erode the benefit packages for the MDOC employees," he said. "A few years back they took away the health care coverage after retirement which was a big hit."
Employees used to be able to earn 3 percent towards their health coverage at retirement with a cap of 80 percent, as well as a pension. Those have been taken away, Osborn said.
"That was a huge incentive to keep people working here for 30 years," he said. "Folks are looking for other lines of work that have something similar to that."
The pandemic will be over at some point but the prison system will still be there after it ends. This means they have to come up with ways to fill these vacancies. Gautz says they lose about 50 employees each month due to retirement and promotion.
"There's a lot of jobs. Not just corrections officers that we need to employ every day. We need employment counselors, we need just regular counselors to deal with mental health issues to deal with the day-to-day that the prisoners need assistance with. There's a lot of opportunity with the Department of Corrections," Gautz said.
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