Correctional officers put pressure on lawmakers, push for pay raise

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HARRISON COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - A few hours before lawmakers and state officials paid tribute to correctional officers in Charleston, union leaders held a press conference of their own, pushing legislators to pass a pay raise bill.

Their message was clear: Pass the pay raise bill or risk losing more correctional officers to other states.

"These operations are 24/7 and they have to be staffed," said Elaine Harris, a staff representative with the Communications Workers of America/National Coalition of Public Safety Officers.

5 News called Harris in Charleston, where her union stressed the need to pass House Bill 4142 and its companion bill in the Senate, SB 262.

HB 4142 passed the House Finance Committee this week, putting Governor Jim Justice's proposed legislation on track for a final vote next week.

The bill would increase salaries for correctional officers at state prisons, regional jails, and juvenile facilities by $6,000 over three years.

The pay raise, proponents say, will address the "crisis-level" understaffing in state prisons. Many have attributed high turnover and staff shortages to the meager starting salary of $24,664.

"No worker wants to be on public assistance," said Harris. "Unfortunately, many of those folks qualify. And it's not anything any one of them is proud of."

In December, Gov. Justice declared a state of emergency in the corrections system. The executive order allowed members of the West Virginia National Guard to step in and bring relief to correctional officers, who were sometimes working 16 hour shifts.

"A lot of them want the overtime," said Becky Slayton, who retired from the corrections system last summer. "Because they can't live without it."

Although Gov. Justice has indicated he'd like to freeze PEIA changes for 17 months, Slayton worries that the pay raise hike will not offset costs of premiums in the future.

"By the time insurance and taxes and everything goes up, so they may see less of [the salary]," she said.

Justice's bill would raise officers' salaries by $2,000 a year over the course of three years.

In a statement to 5 News, Lawrence Messina, the director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, wrote the following:

"DMAPS is grateful for the tremendous support Governor Justice has show the department and its correctional agencies. Governor Justice is championing significant pay raises for our correctional officers and staff, making them part of his legislative agenda."