Four months ago, with the state budget feeling the pinch of a diving economy, Texas' 24,000 correctional officers cheered the news that the Legislature had given them a 3.5 percent pay raise, effective this fall.Maybe this is partly happening because TDCJ officials aren't feeling the same staffing pressure they were this time a year ago, when they first proposed 20% raises for the next biennium to the Legislature. When the session began in January, TDCJ was more than 3,000 guards short statewide, as it had been chronically for a number of years. But front-end hiring bonuses and a tanking economy combined (with somewhat surprising rapidity) to fill up a couple of thousand of those empty slots by mid-year.
By Friday, that thrill was fading: Prison officials acknowledged correctional officers will get slightly less — 3.35 percent — while their bosses will get more — for some, raises of more than 8 percent.
The difference in the size of the raises for correctional officers amounts to about $51 a year in most cases. But to some of Texas' prison employees, who are among the lowest paid in the United States, the change represents a broken promise — in a system where such things can sometimes turn into nettlesome problems for administrators.
Dozens of correctional officers are reportedly filing grievances on the issue.
"You talk about a morale buster — this is it," said Brian Olsen, executive director of a Huntsville union that represents about 5,000 correctional officers in Texas. "It's crazy to me that they'd take any percentage away from the officers, the lowest paid, so they can pay the supervisors more."
Now, the agency likely doesn't see pay hikes as being quite so critical to solving an immediate understaffing crisis. Their priorities have changed since they asked for the money, in other words.
TDCJ says they're following a legislative mandate by shifting the raises to supervisors, while House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds told Ward, ""For crying out loud, this was never the intent of the Legislature ... We said we wanted a 3.5 percent increase for each year, and that's what we meant ... To have supervisors getting a lot more like this was never on our radar screen."
I don't know who is correct on the legalities in this he-said/she-said situation. (MORE: According to a commenter, "The State Auditors Office's changed the schedule B job classifications and salaries, which is contained in the budget [SB 1] and passed by the legislature. TDCJ, like other state agencies, can not pay less than the minimum on the new schedule, which increased the supervisors' pay.") Certainly McReynolds is right, though, that larger pay hikes for supervisors were never part of the public debate nor any presentation I'm aware of by TDCJ to the Lege.
Given the rotten economy and competing financial obligations, it's true as TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said that prison staff were lucky to receive the raises they got. But it appears agency leaders will fritter away any morale benefits from the raises by this petty dipping into the line staff's pockets. From a symbolic perspective, this will be a disappointing and frustrating outcome for workers, made more poignant because TDCJ administrators spent two years touting line staff's needs while begging for money at every turn up at the capitol.