“It was a bit of a factor,” she said about how the bonus offered since last April affected her decision to join TDCJ as a correctional officer. “It will help me out a lot. I have a lot of bills that I need to get paid.”
Through October 2008, 1,322 recruitment bonus checks had been mailed to new or returning correctional officers who had taken the incentive TDCJ is offering as a way to boost staffing levels at 16 designated facilities. After taxes, the officers generally net between $1,050 and $1,100 each.
To receive the one-time bonus, eligible employees must graduate from a TDCJ pre-service academy or be a direct hire. Retirees accepting the bonus must have waited one full calendar month before returning to work, and all other former agency employees must wait one year from the time they left to be eligible. In return for the bonus, eligible employees sign a contract on the last day of their pre-service training that obligates them to remain at one of the designated understaffed correctional facilities for one year. If they leave before then, the employees must return all or a prorated portion of the bonus to the agency. In October, 121 bonus checks were being repaid because the officers who received them had left before the end of one year.
The prospect of having to repay the $1,500 bonus was the main reason Paula Hardilek decided not to take it when she hired on a correctional officer at the understaffed Estelle Unit in Huntsville last September. She had recently earned a college degree in criminal justice and didn’t plan on working as a correctional officer for long.
“I have a degree and I’m still searching for jobs in probation or parole,” she said. “So I didn’t want to take the bonus, find a job, and then have to pay it back.”
Hardilek, however, was the only eligible member of her pre-service class at the Houston training facility to decline the bonus. Twenty-five others were not eligible because they had either been assigned to non-designated units or were going to be working only part-time.
Unlike Hardilek, Owen Spencer of Houston said he was looking forward to a long career as a TDCJ security officer. He was originally assigned to the Byrd Unit in Huntsville but later asked to go to the Ferguson Unit in Midway, where he would automatically become eligible for the bonus. He said he would be using part of it as a down payment on a car to replace the rental he was then driving.
“I’ve got two kids, so it’s already been spent,” said Casimir Rudziewicz, a Dilley resident who worked as a TDCJ correctional officer in Huntsville and Cotulla before leaving the agency in 2005.
“It influenced me to go to McConnell,” he said about the bonus he would be receiving for going to an understaffed unit. “Fifteen hundred dollars is a pretty good amount.”
Lopez said her sister’s 7 years as a correctional officer at TDCJ’s Lychner Unit near Humble also influenced her decision to sign on with the agency. She initially planned on working at Lychner with her sister but asked that she be assigned to the understaffed Estelle Unit after visiting the facility on a training exercise.
When filling out a job application, potential recruits can identify three units or geographical regions where they would prefer to work. The Human Resources Division then assigns them to a unit based on the availability of jobs at units in the areas they identify. But why not just assign the greatest number of graduates to units with the greatest staffing needs regardless of preference?
“Typically, when you send someone where they don’t want to be, they tend not to be happy, so they tend not to stay there and we lose them” said Major Troy Selman of the Houston training facility. “With the bonuses, I think we’ve identified a way to attract people’s interest to areas where we have a little trouble getting their interest. Usually, the areas where we have problems have some geographic issues. A lot of times they’re a little farther away from major towns of significant populations. So these bonuses give us an incentive to attract folks to those areas.”
Selman said he suspects that most veteran officers welcome the recruits receiving bonuses since their very presence means that less overtime will be worked at the understaffed units, resulting in more time off for everyone and less staff fatigue overall.
“If you look at the overtime savings and the fatigue levels on some of those facilities, I think it pays for itself,” Selman said.