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Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:09 am

Ka-ching!

Prison jobs pay big

 

While legislators consider banning the Illinois Department of Corrections from privatizing prison health care jobs, pay records show that prison workers earn substantially more than counterparts in the private sector as well as prison employees in other Midwestern states.

Prison workers, ranging from nurses to bureaucrats to plumbers to barbers, are far more likely to earn six figures a year in Illinois than in bordering states, according to databases that show more than 300 Illinois Department of Corrections employees have base salaries of at least $100,000.

After prison officials announced plans to lay off 124 nurses and contract out their duties, the Senate last week passed a bill that would freeze the number of state prison workers employed to provide health care to inmates. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, would scuttle plans to have Pennsylvania-based Wexford Health Sources provide nursing services.

McCann acknowledges that prison nurses get paid more than counterparts in the private sector, but the senator, whose wife is a nurse, says that nurses in the private sector deserve higher pay. Prison workers, he noted, are exposed to dangers that don’t exist outside prison walls, and they are often required to work in stifling heat inside buildings without air conditioning.

“For many of us in Illinois, we do enjoy a standard of living – there’s no doubt about it,” McCann said. “It seems to me that we live in a time when we have some politicians telling us that if we somehow or another can drag down some working people, the rest of us can rise because of it. That’s not the case.”

Prison officials say that privatization would save $8 million per year. Loreatha Coleman, a nurse at Stateville Correctional Center who earned $254,781 in 2016, was the department’s highest-paid employee last year. She also was the highest paid IDOC employee in 2015, when she earned $242,222. Through March 31, Coleman this year has been paid $45,429. By contrast, John Baldwin, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, is paid $150,000 per year.

Much of Coleman’s pay, as well as paychecks earned by other prison nurses, appears to be the result of overtime. Coleman’s base salary is $92,028, well above the 2016 average salary of $70,886 for registered nurses in Illinois as reported by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 144 nurses employed by IDOC last year, 99 had base salaries in excess of the state average, according to comptroller records, and 54 were paid at least $100,000, which includes overtime pay.

Alice Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association that represents prison nurses in labor negotiations, said that nurses are sometimes forced to work overtime against their will. She said the union has lobbied without success to convince the state to hire more prison nurses to reduce overtime costs.

“The boss tells you to stay, you don’t have a choice to go home,” Johnson said. “Trust me, many of our nurses would happily trade overtime for watching their children, and now their grandchildren, grow up. … The state could save a lot of money by hiring enough nurses, therefore reducing the need for overtime.”

Nurses aren’t alone in making six figures. Curtis Haas, a barber at Vandalia Correctional Center, was paid $103,174 last year, which was nearly $17,000 more than his base salary of $86,257. This year, he got a raise, going from $41.47 per hour to $42.74. The average salary for a barber in Illinois last year was $20.93 per hour, or $43,540 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A dozen of the 20 Illinois prison barbers last year were paid at least $87,000, with wages ranging from $26.33 to $42.74 per hour. Two beauticians are employed by the state Department of Corrections. Last year, one earned $90,341; the other was paid $57,085. There is no beautician category in Bureau of Labor Statistics databases, but the average 2016 salary for hair stylists, cosmetologists and hairdressers was $27,610.

From food service supervisors to plumbers to nurses to guards to bureaucrats, 841 of 12,717 Illinois prison employees last year were paid at least $100,000, and 308 of them had six-figure base salaries – it works out to 6 percent of the prison workforce collecting six figures. By comparison, just 10 of Indiana’s 5,381 prison employees have six-figure base salaries. Less than 2 percent of prison employees in Wisconsin were paid six figures in 2015, including overtime. In Iowa, 64 of 2,962 prison employees earned six figures last year, which works out to 2 percent of the prison workforce earning at least $100,000.

Citing newspaper stories that say corrections departments in other states that pay less than Illinois are having trouble filling jobs, Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says there’s a cost to low pay.

“To look at the experiences of surrounding states is a disturbing cautionary tale of what happens when you join a race to the bottom in the realm of public safety,” said Lindall, whose union represents guards, food service supervisors and other prison employees. “There have been widely covered scandals in Wisconsin and in Missouri, and there have been efforts to raise wages in those states.”

Like McCann, Lindall said the work environment needs to be considered. “You’re talking about people who are working in a prison setting – you cannot lose sight of that,” Lindall said. “It takes a committed individual to work in those settings. This is not the McDonald’s drive-through.”

But Kristina Rasmussen, president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said prison pay that exceeds what workers get in other states or in the private sector in Illinois is “absolutely an issue.” While prison employees have more dangerous working conditions thatn counterparts outside prison walls, she said, that needs to be balanced with job security, excellent health insurance and pension benefits that have become rare outside government.

“Working in a prison comes with pros and cons,” Rasmussen said. “We need to have fairness between those who pay for government and those who are paid by state government.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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