In April, the agency’s correctional officer vacancy rate stood at 5.5 percent, down sharply from its all-time high of 15.1 percent in September 2007. TDCJ Correctional Institutions Director Nathaniel Quarterman said an increase in the statewide unemployment rate from 4.4 percent to 6.4 percent played a role in the agency’s increased hiring over the period.
“Historically, as the statewide unemployment rate has gone up our vacancy rate has come down,” Quarterman said. “We were making progress before the economy cooled, but we are filling positions at an even faster rate now.”
Indeed, as many private sector employers have been announcing large layoffs in recent months, TDCJ has been hiring correctional officers at an accelerated rate. During February, for example, the agency expected to hire approximately 500 new officers. By mid-month, though, more than 600 had already been hired. Nearly 900 officers were hired in both March and April. Further, nearly 300 fewer officers left the agency during the first eight months of the current fiscal year compared to the previous year. And with a 3 percent drop in the turnover rate for correctional officers projected for FY 2009, Quarterman expects TDCJ’s staffing gains to continue.
“Even though the staffing situation has improved significantly, we are not satisfied,” he said. “It is our expectation to further reduce the number of vacancies, and with fewer people leaving and more people being hired, we seem to be on the right track.”
Both Quarterman and TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston attribute the drop in the agency’s correctional officer vacancy rate to a number of factors, one being the sour economy. They also cite a recent increase in the starting salaries for new correctional officers, upgrades to the career ladder and the offering of a $1,500 hiring bonus for officers agreeing to work at designated understaffed units.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Livingston said. “I think it’s a combination of the bonuses that we’re offering at the understaffed facilities, the starting pay increase back in May and the increase in the statewide unemployment rate. Also, we have been successful in recruiting former employees who left for opportunities that may no longer be available.” If granted, the agency’s request for funding to increase the salaries of correctional officers, parole officers and their supervisors would further impact the agency’s correctional officer shortage in a positive way, Livingston said.
“It would have a big impact, not just on our ability to recruit, but even more importantly on our ability to retain experienced staff,” he said.
Already the recruiting bonuses are making an impact as several designated units saw significant staffing increases since March of 2008. By April of 2009, the Estelle Unit near Huntsville had filled 151 formerly vacant correctional officer positions, raising the percentage of filled positions from 72.5 percent to 94 percent. The McConnell Unit in Beeville increased its percentage of filled positions from 68.4 percent to 88.9 percent during the period, while the Clements Unit in Amarillo, where 317 hiring bonuses were awarded, ended April 2009 with 92.3 percent of its positions filled, up from its 82 percent staffing rate of March 2008.
In addition to the Clements Unit, the Estelle Unit awarded 327 recruiting bonuses and more than 320 bonuses were awarded at Coffield in Palestine.
Other units showing increased percentages of filled positions included Connally, from 69.5 percent to 85.2 percent; Neal in Amarillo, from 76.5 percent to 89 percent; Lynaugh in Fort Stockton, from 62.4 percent to 90 percent; and Michael in Tennessee Colony, from 71.7 percent to 92.1 percent.
“I think the bonuses are a significant part of the reason we’ve seen staffing increases at most of the understaffed units,” Livingston said. “That and the downturn in the economy.”
According to TDCJ Human Resources Director Carol Johnston, job security and a defined retirement plan that provides state employees health insurance and a guaranteed retirement income for life can be attractive incentives for people who are losing their jobs in the private sector. She pointed out that a correctional officer earning $3,045 a month and retiring at age 50 with 20 years of service can expect an estimated lifetime payout of $613,900. And while salaries paid in the private sector are generally higher, she notes that the benefits offered by the state, including hazardous duty pay, payment for vacations and holidays, sick leave pay, and health, insurance and retirement programs more than compensate for the difference in salaries. State-paid health insurance premiums alone are worth more than $4,300 a year for employee-only coverage, she said.
“I think the benefits are going to be even more attractive since many people in the private sector may have lost anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their 401K retirement plans within a period of 14 months,” Johnston added. “So I think a defined retirement plan will be very attractive for individuals as we go forward.”
Job security and benefits are, in fact, the top two reasons given by more than 6,000 returning officers surveyed since October 2000 for their decision to rejoin TDCJ after working in the private sector for a time. Others have cited the recent starting pay raise and the offering of hiring bonuses, while still others have said that they are simply more committed to a career with the agency than they were before leaving.
With these incentives as added ammunition, Livingston said the agency is continuing its aggressive recruitment campaign. Radio advertising campaigns are also conducted and letters are mailed to Texas high schools and colleges highlighting career opportunities. Also, recruiting information is sent to military bases and military websites to attract separating or retiring military personnel.
TDCJ recruiters also regularly attend community job fairs and career day events. In addition, a Correctional Prospector Program was developed three years ago to expand recruiting efforts by involving correctional officers and supervisors in the search for additional officers. The goal of the program is to further increase participation in job fairs and career days and to promote hiring seminars and screenings.
“We’ve been and continue to be very aggressive in our recruiting,” Livingston said. “We’ve worked very hard to get to this point and we’re going to continue to work hard.”