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  1. Florida Politics

After long drought, governor proposes that Florida corrections officers get pay raise

TALLAHASSEE — After six years of refusing to give Florida corrections officers a pay raise, Gov. Rick Scott is including $38 million in his proposed budget to boost pay for officers in Florida's prison system, which is one of the nation's most violent.

The pay bump, to be unveiled Tuesday when Scott releases his proposed budget, would be for officers up to and including the rank of captain, said Scott's spokesman, McKinley Lewis.

Scott is also proposing to include $5 million for signing bonuses of up to $1,000 for officers at understaffed prisons, and $2.5 million to increase pay for officers assigned to prisons with mental health units, Lewis said.

The proposal comes after years of reports about corruption and brutality in the prison system, which has been hobbled by staff turnover related to difficult working conditions and low pay. The raises must receive approval from state legislators. In the last 10 years, they've increased the corrections salaries only once — a one-time bonus for the lowest-paid officers.

"The governor believes in investments that allow the Florida Department of Corrections to better retain officers and have an experienced workforce," Lewis said.

Although Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has repeatedly said that low salaries and poor working conditions have led to enormous turnover at the troubled agency, Scott refused last year to include a pay raise in his recommendation to lawmakers as he sought $1 billion in tax cuts. This year, Scott is seeking $618 million in tax cuts.

Kimberly Schultz, president of Teamsters Local 2011, which has been lobbying legislators for years for a pay raise, commended the governor's decision to recommend one this year.

"Local 2011 feels vindicated that the data we have provided and the work we are doing has not fallen on deaf ears and Secretary Jones continues to tout the data that I provided last year as a basis for pay increases,'' she said. "… The statistics show that fair pay results in employee longevity, which maintains prison stability and safety for officers and inmates."

John Rivera, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which now represents corrections officers, said it was time to "address the turnover rate and dismal pay. Retaining quality officers should be a priority for our state."

A 2015 audit conducted by an independent firm hired by the Legislature found that between 2009 and 2015 turnover has increased by 50 percent in state prisons, leaving half of all corrections officers with less than three years of experience. At five of the 10 largest Florida prisons, only half of staff members had more than two years of work experience, the audit found.

Chronic understaffing contributed to the surge in contraband at prisons and an increase in gang-related violence and conflicts between inmates and staffers, the report said.

Deaths of inmates in the prison system have risen every year and that could be partly attributable to an aging inmate population. But in a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Jones said chronic understaffing and lack of experience have hurt the department.

Florida's average salary for a corrections officer at FDC is $31,951. Uncertified trainees start at $28,008 — "substantially below salary levels in other large state correctional systems," the 2015 audit found.

Experienced officers who want to supplement their earnings often work excessive amounts of overtime. The department spent $18.2 million on overtime in 2014-2015, amounting to an average increase of about $438.69 per paycheck, data show.

Under the governor's plan, salaries for a starting corrections officer would raise salaries from $30,926 to $33,500 — an increase of 8.3 percent. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains would see a 10 percent pay increase.

The pay raises will also go to probation officers.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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