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High stress, low pay

By Staff
WORK, WORK, WORK n Kim Clark logs an entry in the docket book while handling phone matters and other tasks while Sgt. Ralph Campbell works on the computer. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star
By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Dec. 15, 2000
Pay offered to starting correctional officers in Lauderdale County is below what the U.S. Census Bureau defines as poverty level, officials said Thursday.
Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie advised the board of supervisors at a work session officers were in short supply at the low income level. Some even depend on food stamps to support their families.
The starting pay for correctional officers $15,371 falls below the $16,700 termed by the U.S. Census Bureau as poverty level for a family of four in which one spouse works.
Of 67 correctional officers, 25 are at starting salary. The highest paid correctional officers those who have been employed for six years or more are lieutenants and sergeants. Their pay ranges from $19,635 to $21,840.
Sollie's appearance at the work session came in response to questions posed by District 2 Supervisor Jimmie Smith at last week's meeting about the officers' turnover rate.
A salary study completed earlier this year by a Mississippi State University team from Stennis Institute said employees who have worked for the county longer should receive larger raises. The study seemed to base pay raises on length of service, not necessarily merit.
If supervisors follow that suggestion, few correctional officers will get large raises since the turnover rate is high and most have been on the job for relatively short periods of time.
The low pay can have consequences, Sollie said. For example, when inmates Zachary Kothenbeutel and John Joseph Thomas escaped through the ceiling of their cell block in March 1999, Sollie said the jail was understaffed. The jail is adequately staffed now, he said, but low pay and high stress are making many correctional officers leave the field completely.
A high turnover rate means the work environment is not stable, a problem also encountered at other correctional facilities. The day Smith asked him about turnover at the Lauderdale County Correctional Facility, Sollie said three officers were terminated and one resigned at the Wackenhut facility in Lost Gap.
With unemployment rates low right now, he said it is not always easy to hire the highest quality employees because they have little trouble finding better paying jobs. While a higher starting salary may not solve all the problems, he said it is probable higher pay would bring higher quality employees.
Sollie said one version of the salary study he saw says correctional officers should get a 2.5 percent raise. With a 3 percent cost of living raise already given in October, Sollie said he is not sure if correctional officers will get another raise at all.
District 3 Supervisor Craig Hitt said supervisors expect to hold meetings with department heads and a conference with MSU officials soon.
He said there are wide ranges of percentage increases and some percentages have come down after supervisors revisited job descriptions. As far as correctional officers, he said it's "a whole different situation there, with the salary and the stress level."
While supervisors had hoped pay increases to be in place the first of the year, it looks like that may not happen.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at