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Idaho Department Of Correction Faces ‘Critical’ Staff Shortage

Inmates walk across the grounds at the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna.
Scott Ki
Associated Press
In this Jan. 30, 2018 file photo, inmates walk across the grounds of the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna, Idaho.

The Idaho Department of Correction faces a “critical” staff shortage, department staff told board members on Wednesday.

“It’s a tough time in our facilities when we’re short-staffed,” IDOC Director Josh Tewalt said during the board meeting.

There are 181 correctional officer openings statewide, the highest vacancy rate in six years. Reduced staffing threatens morale and can mean residents have less access to normal activities and programs.

Tewalt said the shortage predominantly comes down to pay.

The agency boosted starting pay to $16.75 an hour, but facilities across the border in Oregon are paying more than $22. Some local Treasure Valley businesses also offer higher starting wages.

“We understand we have more work to do to be more competitive in the marketplace,” Tewalt said. “That’s going to be the No. 1 priority going into the legislative session.”

In response to a question about why starting pay can’t be raised higher now, Tewalt said the agency would need a larger appropriation from the state legislature. It would like to raise starting pay to $18 an hour.

But Tewalt said the agency also needs competitive pay throughout the job pipeline and needs to increase its employee retention.

In the meantime, staff face overtime requirements, which means they might be working 16-hour shifts — instead of 12-hour ones — multiple times a week.

Also on Wednesday, the board heard an update on COVID-19 in the IDOC system. Every person in custody of the Idaho Department of Corrections has been offered a COVID-19 vaccine.

In his latest agency update the first week of July, Tewalt said 73% of IDOC residents have been vaccinated. But in the presentation Wednesday, he said only about 45% of staff are vaccinated. That’s despite Gov. Brad Little’s announcement last month that state employees could get paid time off if they get the shot by the end of August.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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