Oklahoma legislators consider pay raises for corrections officers

Oklahoma legislators are considering giving state corrections officers their first raise in eight years.
by Rick Green Modified: April 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm •  Published: April 21, 2014

Corrections officer Joshua Sparks reports at 6 a.m. for a work shift that is supposed to end at 6 p.m. but often goes three or four hours longer. By the time he makes it around a long road detour and back home to Purcell, all he can do is fall into bed, go to sleep and get ready for work again.

Such is life for state Corrections Department employees. With pay starting at $11.83 an hour, it is so hard to recruit and retain people that massive overtime is required.

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering giving these workers their first raise in eight years. A bill for targeted pay hikes has passed the Oklahoma House and is pending in the Senate. The size of the potential raises is yet to be determined.

Gov. Mary Fallin has proposed raises for troopers and child welfare workers, and budget negotiators are also looking at a potential increase for correctional workers.

“It will take several years to address all the needs, but the governor is hopeful some first steps will be taken this year and in the future,” said Alex Weintz, her spokesman.

Any improvement in pay or reduction in workload can’t come too soon for Sparks, who works at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center. His normal work week is five, 12-hour shifts, but sometimes he is asked to stay longer because of short staffing or to accompany an inmate having a medical procedure, so-called “hospital watch.”

“You’re just tired, you’re beat, you’re worn out,” said Sparks, 24. “Because of the long work hours, and stuff, I’ve recently been going through a breakup.

“I’ve just been working my butt off you know to try to make ends meet.”

He sold his V-8 truck and bought an SUV with a smaller engine and better gas mileage. The cost of fuel became staggering when a state bridge had to be closed for lengthy repairs and the 15-minute trip between his home in Purcell and the prison in Lexington turned into an hour-long drive.

Sparks is among a majority of the state’s 1,539 correctional officers required to work 60-hour weeks, said department spokesman Jerry Massie. These jobs can be difficult and dangerous and other positions in the oil fields and elsewhere simply pay more.

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by Rick Green
Capitol Bureau Chief
Rick Green is the Capitol Bureau Chief of The Oklahoman. A graduate of Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., he worked as news editor for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City before joining The Oklahoman.
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OTHERS’ STORIES

Roy Douglas, 36, works at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft. Reached on Thursday, he said he had just completed 83 hours of work over five days. “I don’t have a social life,” he said “I spend my time at work. I go home and go to bed. He said he began working at this prison eight years ago. “Here it is eight years later, and gas is $3.50 a gallon and guess what, my pay hasn’t gone up,” he said. “Officers are married and have the option of getting on food stamps because they don’t have enough money.”

Social worker Daniel Lichty, 42, works for the state Department of Human Services in Pottawatomie County. He said he has a caseload involving more than 400 people. He makes $28,000 a year. “I’m underpaid for what I do,” he said. “When I look at comparable jobs in the federal government, they start at $32,000, and the high end is $60,000. We are so low-paid that there are people who work for the DHS who actually qualify for some of the benefits we offer, such as Medicaid. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”

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