GOP approves $37M in pay raises for prison workers

MADISON — The Wisconsin Legislature's budget-writing committee signed off on a Republican plan Tuesday, May 21 that would give prison workers nearly $37 million in raises in an effort to retain and recruit more guards.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' state budget had earmarked about $23.7 million for prison worker raises. His plan coupled with a 2% across-the-board raise for all state workers in each of the next two years would increase guards' starting wage from $16.65 to $18.22 an hour.

Republicans on the budget committee set aside Evers' proposal Tuesday and introduced their own plan that calls for spending $36.8 million on prison raises. Their proposal would move the starting wage to $19 an hour, raise upper-level salaries accordingly and provide lump-sum bonuses for longevity. The committee approved the plan 11-4. All four Democrats on the committee voted against it.

"It's a major investment," said Rep. Mark Born, who authored the GOP plan. "It's certainly not something that will solve every problem with staffing, wages won't do that alone, but it's an important part of the investment we need to make in corrections."

The committee vote inserts the plan into the budget and removes Evers' proposal from the document. The panel will spend at least several more weeks revising the budget before sending it on to the full Legislature for approval.

The Department of Corrections has been struggling for years to retain and recruit workers willing to deal with prisoners for relatively low wages. A state audit released earlier this month found the turnover rate for guards grew from about 18% in fiscal year 2013-14 to 26% in 2017-18.

The vacancy rate for security personnel, including guards, more than doubled over the five fiscal years, driving an increase in overtime payouts, the audit found. About $23.5 million of 2017-18 overtime wages went to cover vacant positions, a 34% increase over 2015-16, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The audit also found the $16.65 starting wage for Wisconsin prison guards was the second-lowest among seven Midwestern states in August 2018. Evers this spring launched a one-year pilot program that provides a $5-an-hour raise for workers at six prisons, including Waupun, Columbia, Green Bay, and the youth prison outside Irma.

Under the Republican committee proposal, workers at those prisons wouldn't enter the new pay scale until the second year of the budget begins in mid-2020.