Politics

Oregon state government workers struggle to deliver services amid staffing shortages

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
April 25, 2023 1 p.m.

Joshua Cordova, a correctional officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections, in Pendleton, likes the idea of a more humane approach to incarceration.

On paper, the state’s much-touted move toward a Norwegian-style prison system — humanizing adults in custody, addressing their mental health needs and talking to them about their trauma — sounds great.

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In reality, the current staffing shortages at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution where Cordova works means there is one correctional officer for about 80 adults in custody. Cordova and his colleagues work 17-hour shifts, multiple days a week. Their overtime is often mandated, so they show up for shifts having missed a kid’s birthday or important anniversary.

So sure, Cordova says, he likes the idea of improving the physical and emotional well-being of adults in custody. But staffing shortages at the prison where he works are so deep, even the most basic services, like giving inmates time outside of their cells in the yard, can be difficult to deliver.

Vacancy rates are soaring in agencies across Oregon, making it hard for employees to deliver crucial state services. For some, particularly where staffing is required around-the-clock, understaffing has also made the job more dangerous. State lawmakers are in the midst of creating a new two-year budget that employees are hoping does more to help retain and recruit new employees.

Nearly one out of five budgeted jobs within state agencies are currently vacant, although the number fluctuates. That means fewer people staffing Driver and Motor Vehicle Services offices, translating into shorter office hours and longer lines. At the state’s Department of Transportation, there are 104 vacant positions or 13% of the 786 positions of those who work to keep the streets cleaned up and drivable. Elsewhere, the number is greater. The vacancy rate at the state’s health authority is nearly 20%. People staffing the state’s child abuse hotline have reported a lack of staffing and difficulty keeping up with the incoming calls, which means it takes longer to reach kids who could be in dangerous situations.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Throughout the state’s dozen prisons, there are 1,904 correctional officers, nearly 160 vacant positions and another 122 “ghost vacancies” with people on protected leave. The prison where Cordova works currently has about 65 vacancies.

“We’re trying to do all the things required of us, but we don’t have the people to do it and people are getting burnt out,” Cordova said.

State employees in a union are currently bargaining for new contracts that cover wages, benefits and workplace conditions.

Oregon state lawmakers are also in the midst of figuring out the state’s budget for the next two years.

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Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, the co-chair of the state’s powerful budget-writing committee, said Democrats plan to augment the salary pot for workers. But, she added, it’s been a tough couple of years and there are a lot of competing needs. She also pointed out the workforce shortage is not unique to state government.

“We are very eager to help workers thrive and make sure their salaries are fair in light of current economic conditions,” Steiner said. “We’re also eager for school kids to get a great education and make sure there’s enough money in K-12 so that college students don’t have unreasonable tuition increases. So we’re doing a lot of juggling.”

The state recently overhauled its payroll system, and the new system has been plagued with problems. At a recent legislative hearing, state workers testified how difficult it is when they don’t get their paycheck on time.

“So many people get paid so little, they are on the edge and (not receiving) one paycheck sets them back,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU 503, which represents public employees. “It’s just this continuation of people barely able to make their ends meet.”

Alexander Malloy is a family coach with the Department of Human Services in Grants Pass. He helps families experiencing economic challenges connect with safety-net programs, such as housing vouchers or food stamps. When a family is on the verge of having their power shut off, he’s the person who works to keep their lights on.

Malloy recently took a half day and returned to 17 text messages and 12 voicemails.

“I have seven, eight families living in cars with children, it’s just daily crisis intervention,” he said. “I have a total of about 70 families on my caseload, the biggest challenge I experience with my caseload is I don’t have time to make monthly contacts … In the past, we would do home visits to get people the help they needed. There isn’t enough time in the week to do that.”

For Cordova, with the state’s Department of Corrections, the staffing shortages have been hard on his quality of life and the adults in custody who he sees on a nearly daily basis. The staff is exhausted and burnt out. Not being able to offer prisoners time outside increases the tension inside.

A lot of officers are eligible for retirement soon, he said, and many plan to take it. Cordova’s base salary is about $65,000 he said, although he makes significantly more with overtime.

Cordova noted people could get a job at a fast-food restaurant these days for a decent wage and it doesn’t come with the same amount of risk.

You could work at McDonald’s, he said, and “choose your shift, your days off and make $42,000.”

Or you could work for the Oregon Department of Corrections and “risk all the things we risk, being sued, being spit on, assaulted … subjected to mandatory overtime.”

Cordova said those are all reasons why it’s hard to fill the dozens of vacancies in Pendleton and around the state.

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