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After rolling out salary increases, the Department of Corrections is seeing an increase in applications.

In an effort to combat historic staffing shortages within correctional officers and food service staff, the Department of Corrections implemented salary increases for those positions starting July 1.

"We're definitely seeing some improvements," DOC Communications Director Karen Pojmann said. "In recent weeks, the department has been gaining more employees than it's losing, which is awesome."

Between the last week in June and the first week in July, Pojmann said applications for corrections officers increased by 38.5 percent.

Between the first week in July and the first week in August, applications increased 28 percent.

By mid-July, Pojmann said the Central Region Training Academy divided its basic training class into two sections because of unusually high enrollment.

A total of 2,672 applications were completed statewide in July.

"It's still a bit early to be able to definitely track trends or draw conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships, but it seems like we're moving in the right direction," Pojmann said. "That said, we still have a staffing shortage throughout the state, and we're investing resources in recruitment."

With the staffing shortage, Pojmann said correctional centers still have officers working overtime to cover shifts.

"It varies from facility to facility," she said. "In some cases, there are a lot of people who are voluntarily working overtime, and in other cases, we need people to work mandatory overtime occasionally."

Pojmann said the department has historically been understaffed, like most state corrections departments across the country.

"Really, you can trace the problem back to the '90s and the war on drugs when there was a push to incarcerate more and more people for drug-related crimes," Pojmann said. "The country just has never had enough staff in any area to really meet that demand."

Even though the department has seen a gradual decline in staffing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pojmann said the biggest recruiting hurdle is where the prisons are located.

Most correctional centers are located in rural areas, Pojmann said, which makes it hard to draw employees from the surrounding area because populations are smaller.

"It's a pretty small pool of potential employees to draw from," she said. "It's hard to fill jobs, especially at large facilities where you just don't have enough people living in the area. That's been a problem in several parts of the state."

Pojmann said the state's productive economy also poses a challenge as the department must compete with the private sector for employees.

Despite offering benefits, paid training and leave, Pojmann said some employees choose to go elsewhere because they offer similar hourly compensation and a less stressful work environment.

DOC employees will receive another pay increase starting January 2022, as all state employees will see a raise of 2 percent.

Pojmann said that increase could potentially lead to another wave of applicants as more people consider a state government job.

In conjunction with the salary increase, the department recently rolled out a $1,000 employee referral incentive program, paid marketing campaign and extra recruiting events.

"The other complication here is that we've rolled out so many things simultaneously it's hard to say for sure like which thing had the most impact. But we're sure these combined efforts tend to be moving us in the right direction," she said.

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