(TNS) — Each day, Victoria Luby watches as her partner leaves for El Dorado Correctional Facility, where he has worked for 17 years.

He makes $16.50 an hour as a corrections officer. Between the pay, high staff vacancies and low morale, it’s “the worst he’s ever seen it” at the prison, Luby said.

“They need to raise their wages,” Luby said. “There is a lot of risk out there, and if you want these guys to come in every day you have to pay them more than Lowe’s is paying them.”

As the state struggles this summer with prison unrest and staffing shortages, worker pay has emerged as one focal point.

Kansas corrections officers earn a starting wage of $13.95 — less than their counterparts in most other states. In addition, the jail in nearby Sedgwick County offers higher starting pay.

A growing number of lawmakers are calling for an immediate pay raise. The top Senate Republican and the leading House Democrat want Gov. Sam Brownback to act to increase pay on his own.

Paying prison workers more would cost taxpayers money, perhaps as much as $20 million annually. A special legislative session to raise pay, as one lawmaker wants, would cost thousands a day.

An increase could potentially save money as well if it helps reduce vacancies and, in turn, the need for overtime. Kansas spent $5.1 million on overtime for prison workers last year.

More than 300 positions in the state corrections system were vacant as of Aug. 1, with 93 of them at El Dorado. The state saw 46 percent turnover in El Dorado’s uniformed staff in the past year — up from 21 percent in 2012.

But how far would a pay hike go in solving the issues facing the prisons, and what else is needed?

Pay is the most pressing concern, says the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents the officers. It is a major contributor to difficulties finding and retaining workers, the Kansas Department of Corrections says. Rising health insurance costs are also cited as a problem by both the union and the state.

The union and several lawmakers also say working conditions also play a role in keeping staff. And they question the department’s decision to move scores of inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility to El Dorado, contending that led to unrest at El Dorado.

A current worker at Hutchinson Correctional Facility said several things contribute to corrections officers leaving, in particular those with long-time experience.

“Honestly, it’s kind of a combination of everything,” he said. “You have the relatively low pay for the dangerous jobs, the rising tensions of the prison system and the administration, basically it feels like they’ve turned their backs on us.”

Pay falling behind

Kansas had the 10th lowest median hourly wage for corrections officers in 2016, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice. The figures include corrections officers working for federal, state and local governments.

The median wage was $15.33 an hour in Kansas. The national average was $20.59.

Kansas Department of Corrections officers make a starting salary of $29,016 a year. By contrast, Colorado and Iowa both pay starting salaries above $40,000 and Nebraksa pays a starting salary above 34,800. according to the agency.

At federal facilities, pay for corrections officers ranges between $40,511 and $53,702, according to a federal jobs site.

Corrections officers also leave the job at higher rates in Kansas than in some neighboring states. Among the whole prison system, turnover has risen from 22 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2017.

Colorado and Iowa, on the other hand, have relatively low turnover rates of 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Some county jails in Kansas offer better compensation than the state prisons.

Sedgwick County pays its corrections officers a starting wage of $14.40 an hour, according to an online job board for public sector work that the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office directed a reporter to. Reno County, where the state’s Hutchinson Correctional Facility is located, pays its jail deputies $16.06 an hour. Butler County, where the El Dorado prison is located, pays $13.99 an hour, but offers multiple bonuses.

Sedgwick County does attract applicants who have worked at the prisons in El Dorado and in Hutchinson, said Lt. Lin Dehning with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office. He said the jail has about 40 vacancies, which he indicated is on the high end.

“We recruit heavily right now and we’ll take people with experience from the field,” Dehning said.

In addition to overall pay, health insurance premiums are weighing on workers, according to both the union and the state. Worker take-home pay has been effectively cut over the past few years by rising health insurance costs.

A $3,979 per worker increase in health insurance costs since 2015 has resulted in a $1.91 per hour reduction in gross pay before taxes and after health insurance, the corrections department says.

Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said about 11 percent of department employees use a program that helps subsidize the purchase of family insurance for those making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $61,500 for a family of four.

The department points to the state’s low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in explaining its difficulty in attracting workers. The department is receiving fewer applications and is more frequently having to recruit people who already have a job, Norwood says.

Corrections officers must have a high school diploma, have no felony convictions or misdemeanor domestic violence convictions and must have had no driving under the influence convictions in the past two years. They can have no pending criminal charges and must pass an aptitude test.

Skills-based jobs — like corrections — are very difficult to fill, said Kenneth Kriz, an economist at Wichita State University.

They require a set of specialized skills that must often be taught by the employer. In effect, employers must make often large upfront investments in their workers, with no guarantee that they will necessarily stick around.

Add in a government civil service system, where pay plans are prescribed by law, and the system begins to work less than perfectly.

“Unless government is being very careful about doing wage studies to find out what the prevailing wage is, government can fall behind quickly,” on pay, Kriz said.

Concerns for years

Lawmakers have heard concerns about pay and turnover for years.

“We’re looking at needing to put some significant money into this,” then-Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, said in November 2015. “We really see a looming catastrophe.”

But events at El Dorado this summer — including a move to 12-hour shifts to deal with staff shortages and an hours-long incident on June 29 where inmates refused to return to their cell blocks — focused attention on issues at the prison.

Lawmakers called for action.

The corrections department has said there is no link between inmate unrest and staffing shortages, which it has labeled an emergency. A log book sent to The Eagle shows the prison fell below its minimum staffing level for several hours earlier this week, though the agency says the prison’s security posts are always manned.

The department has said it ensures adequate staffing at all times through overtime and mandatory 12-hour shifts.

Others, such as Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, have said the shortage of officers have compromised security.

“There’s a public relations aspect to this to where we need to demonstrate that we’re serious about fixing this problem and our employees are going to be treated better,” said Claeys, who has called for a special session to raise pay.

Claeys wants a pay boost of up to 20 percent for corrections officers statewide. An increase of that size would cost approximately $20 million.

House Democrats want a 10 percent immediate pay raise for corrections officers. They want the department to use its existing budget to pay for the increase. Lawmakers would restore the funding when the Legislature convenes in January.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, wants Brownback to raise pay through executive action but wants to leave the percentage of the increase up to Brownback and Norwood.

Arif, the KDOC spokesman, said Thursday the agency wasn’t ready to endorse a specific option.

An increase costing about $20 million appears affordable, at least this year. The state budget expects a positive end balance of more than $100 million this year, assuming the state meets its revenue targets.

‘Bigger than just pay increases’

Lawmakers interviewed agreed that corrections officer deserve better pay, but some questioned whether a pay raise would address the core issues facing the prisons.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, has agreed to hold hearings on corrections pay early next year. She said corrections officers and a lot of other state workers are underpaid.

But she added that working conditions and management of the prisons are also important factors to consider.

“To me, this is a bigger problem than just pay increases,” McGinn said.

After a visit to El Dorado on Wednesday, Wagle said factors in addition to pay have contributed to unrest at the prison.

“Recent uprisings cannot be blamed solely on underpayment of salaries and a shortage of workers,” Wagle said.

The population of the prison at Lansing dropped by more than 340 inmates this spring while the population at El Dorado rose by about 260 as inmates were taken from Lansing and mainly sent to El Dorado.

The corrections department also double-bunked several prisons, including El Dorado, to add capacity this spring. Three-hundred and fifty beds were added at El Dorado, which now has a capacity of 1,955.

Inmate transfers and double-bunking helped lead to unrest, Wagle said.

“Prisoners do not take well to changes in placement, especially when they are moved to a location where having family visits becomes difficult, if not impossible,” Wagle said.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, sits on the budget committee. He said he wasn’t ready to conclude that raising pay would solve what he said appears to be a crisis at El Dorado but added he also wants to be supportive of corrections officers.

Pay could be the cause, or it could be long hours, or the movement of prisoners, he said.

“Job satisfaction is not always pay,” Hawk said.

‘They can’t wait until January’

Brownback’s office has been silent on whether he will unilaterally raise pay. His office has said only that it is working with Norwood to “examine and evaluate options.”

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who may soon become governor if Brownback is confirmed to an ambassadorship, has likewise shared few specifics.

As lawmakers and others debate what to do, Luby urged action before the Legislature’s regular session begins in January. Too many workers will have left by then, she believes.

“They can’t wait until January,” Luby said. “By January, you’ll be closing the doors up there.”