EBENSBURG – Despite raising the hourly pay last year, Cambria County Prison officials say it’s still a challenge to hire and retain per-diem corrections officers.
During a county prison board meeting Wednesday, 14 per-diem corrections officers were hired, but that will fill less than half of the prison’s allotments for those positions.
Warden Christian Smith said the prison was down to zero per-diem officers for two reasons: advancements to full-time corrections officers positions to replace those who had resigned or retired, and those who resigned for other jobs.
Last year, the county’s salary board approved an increase from $11.71 per hour to $14 per hour for per-diem corrections officers in an effort to fill the positions.
The prison has 30 positions for per-diem corrections officers, who are permitted to work 1,000 hours covering regular and overtime shifts for full-time officers who are on vacation, taking sick time or attending training.
After those hours are reached, they’re laid off and draw unemployment, but prison officials say a majority never come back.
Per-diem corrections officers are required to complete four weeks of paid training before one week of paid on-the-job training, Smith said.
Prison officials have begun attending local job fairs to recruit recent graduates, the most recent of which got prison staff several applications for the per-diem jobs.
“We plan to continue to do this annually,” Smith said.
Corrections officers must have clear criminal backgrounds and a high school diploma or GED, Smith said, but training is provided by the prison and new hires are paid hourly to complete that training. Per-diem corrections officers advance to full-time, higher paid positions based on rankings from job performance evaluations, he added.
County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. asked why the increased hourly pay, job requirements, paid training and benefits aren’t attracting more hires.
“It just astounds me that we can’t get people in to stay,” he said.
“I guarantee if you hadn’t raised the rate to $14 per hour, you wouldn’t see this many new hires,” added Commissioner Mark Wissinger.
Many per-diem and full-time corrections officers have left the Cambria County Prison to pursue jobs that will provide health care after retirement, Smith said.
“The wage increase has helped, but it’s still difficult,” he said.
Along with efforts to hire and retain staff, the prison has been implementing creative ways to increase revenues at the facility.
Smith reported that after recently entering into a new contract for commissary, vending machine sales have generated $6,500 in the first week after they were installed. Soda machines seem to be the most popular, Smith said, with cans disappearing nearly as soon as they’re stocked.
The prison collects a 25-percent commission on those purchases, Smith said.
There are machines located in each of the prison’s six housing units, excluding disciplinary housing.
Smith said the contract includes compensation of an employee who manages and distributes the prison’s commissary inventory, which allowed prison officials to eliminate a $33,000 salary for a previous staff member with the same duties.