The Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta, photographed in September 2020. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Facing a crisis in staffing at the county jail, the Kennebec County Commissioners have approved a plan to offer sign-on bonuses and retention incentives for corrections officers.

While the jail is budgeted for 52 corrections officers, it now has 26, which means officers are often forced to work overtime shifts to keep the jail operating.

“We’re supplying all the services we would be at full staff,” said Lt. Bryan Slaney at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility. “Every one employee is doing what two employees should be doing.”

That has affected employee morale at the jail,  Slaney said, and led to stress and burnout among corrections officers who remain on staff.

Slaney said a recent survey conducted among jail staff members showed their top concerns to be forced overtime, money and staff calling in sick, which results in forced overtime.

“Right now, we’re so short-staffed that anyone who calls in (sick), it’s a last-minute order,” Slaney said. “You think you’re going home, and, I’m sorry, you’re not because we have to maintain a certain level of staffing.”

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At Tuesday’s meeting of the Kennebec County Commissioners, Slaney said to help fill shifts, he has reassigned five support staff members, who run programs and do community service, to staff shifts at the jail, which has relieved some pressure.

Slaney proposed offering $5,000 sign-on bonuses, to be paid in two installments — $2,500 after six months on the job, and $2,500 after a year.

For current employees, he proposed offering $100 gift cards for gasoline or groceries to staff members who have perfect attendance for a month. Slaney said this could help reduce absences that are driving forced overtime.

“Last month alone, we had 1,683 overtime hours at the correctional facility,” he said. “That amounts to $51,711 in one month in overtime.”

The jail, whose $9.9 million budget represents slightly more than half of the county’s proposed $17.4 million budget, has an overtime budget that is now $600,000.

If he were able to hire 10 corrections officers, Slaney said that would cost $50,000 in incentives and, theoretically, halt the monthly payout of overtime.

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Two recent applicants to the jail had withdrawn their names from consideration, Slaney said, but when they were asked if hiring incentives would change their mind, both opted to be interviewed and were hired.

“Are you assuming that people are taking sick time when they’re not sick?” District 2 Commissioner Nancy Rines said.

“Yeah,” Slaney said. “People are burned out. It depends on what ‘sick’ is. I think it’s more a mental health day or they are exhausted.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason said jail inmates often help communities with cleanup in the spring, but that has been suspended because staff members are needed to run the facility.

“We’re dealing with a nongovernment concept called competition,” said Scott Ferguson, Kennebec County administrator. “We’re going up against other jails that are offering increased pay and incentives.”

Kennebec County corrections officers start at $17.95 an hour. Slaney said he is interested to see what persuades people to stay. He said he has found people who stay on the job for a year and go to the corrections academy and become certified as a corrections officer are more than likely to remain in the profession.

Commissioners agreed to both parts of the plan and asked to be updated on the program.

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