Md. discontinues bonuses for correctional officers

July 02, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has discontinued the sign-on, retention and referral bonuses it previously offered to boost recruitment of correctional officers, department spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said.

The change, which took effect Wednesday with the start of the new fiscal year, was necessitated by "fiscal challenges," Vernarelli said.

Steve Berger, the Western Maryland representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers, predicted the elimination of bonuses would make recruiting correctional officers more difficult.

"It was so hard to attract correctional officers, they had to do something to get 'em to sign on," Berger said.


Berger said bonuses helped Maryland's prisons compete with higher wages offered by other states and even some county detention centers, such as those in Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The starting salary for Maryland state correctional officers is about $36,000, Vernarelli said.

Vernarelli said he hoped the elimination of bonuses would not make a difference in hiring.

"I think recruitment is always a challenge because we are competing with a vast variety of law enforcement agencies, but on the other hand, good correctional people -- and we have many of them in Hagerstown -- certainly pass along that there are certain benefits to the job that perhaps the public doesn't always realize," Vernarelli said.

Those benefits include retirement after 20 years, the starting salary and holidays, he said.

The bonus system was created in 2006 in response to a retention problem primarily seen in the state's Jessup-area facilities, Vernarelli said.

"In general, retention and hiring are not the significant challenges in Hagerstown that we face in some other regions downstate," he said.

In May, there were only six vacancies at the three state prisons south of Hagerstown, Vernarelli said.

The bonuses were instituted as part of a larger effort to attract and retain officers that also included boosting the starting salary for a correctional officer more than $5,000 and instituting step increases in the salaries of existing correctional officers, Vernarelli said.

Berger said the risks of the job weigh heavily against the benefits.

"For $35,000, who wants to put their life on the line?" he asked. "And that's basically what they're asking people to do with all the gangs inside the prison now."

Berger said AFSCME was in negotiations with the state, but some compromises had been necessary.

He said the union fought off a proposed 1 percent pay cut for all state employees and helped develop alternatives to layoffs, such as cost-saving measures and the requirement that state employees take furlough days.

"We felt very good about what we accomplished and not losing more than we did," Berger said.

Retention bonuses, which are issued to officers who use only a certain amount of sick leave, were to be paid by June 30 for the time period of May 1, 2008, through April 30, 2009, according to information in an e-mail provided by Vernarelli. No retention bonuses will be paid for fiscal year 2010, it said.

Sign-on bonuses will be paid for employees hired before June 30, and referral bonuses will be paid to employees who referred new hires who started before or on June 30, the e-mail said.

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