Ten jailers have left the Morgan County Sheriff's Office in the past 30 days, and that turnover continues a trend that concerns officials and has them proposing to raise pay for the position in the fiscal 2020 County Commission budget.
Just this week, the commission approved hiring a dozen more jailers. Since February, 52 jailers have left, and 58 have been hired, according to commission records.
Commission Chairman Ray Long said he is in discussions with first-term Sheriff Ron Puckett to stop the revolving door on the jail payroll. Long doesn’t want Morgan County to be a training ground for jailers who leave for bigger paychecks and more desirable working conditions.
Competition for workers has increased as unemployment has declined. Alabama's jobless rate in July was 3.3% and 2.6% for Morgan County, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Swafford said the county jail presently houses 574 inmates with a staff of 125 jailers.
The opportunity to earn higher pay elsewhere continues to be the main reason for jailers leaving, Long and Puckett said. But the job requirements also are an obstacle to retaining jailers.
“Every month we have quite a bit of turnover,” Long said. “It goes back to the working conditions. A lot of people don’t realize what a jailer really does until they take a job. It’s not just putting inmates in the cell and locking the door. A lot of it is the pay. Some are just not good workers. The sheriff gets rid of some. There are tougher conditions than expected, and some aren’t suited for that kind of work."
Presently, Morgan jailers earn a starting pay of $11.65 an hour. The proposed fiscal 2020 budget would bring that pay to more than $13 an hour after the employee completes the probationary period. Puckett won’t fill seven vacancies to free up money for the 2020 pay hikes. Long said the budget will likely pass at the Sept. 24 regular commission meeting.
But that may still not be enough to improve jailer retention, Long and Puckett said.
“We focus on reducing turnover daily,” Puckett said in a text message to The Daily. “However, working in a jail is not for everyone. Improving the pay is a step that will help us recruit and retain candidates. We have worked hard to address the controllable issues that negatively impact turnover.”
Swafford said two other major obstacles in retaining jailers are the hours they have to work and cavity searches they have to perform for drugs and weapons.
“Their overall duty is care, custody and control,” Swafford said. “They work 12 hours from 6 to 6 each day.”
He said additional duties vary from records/warrant management, booking chores during intake, property inventory and paperwork, managing trustees and work release, managing work details, ongoing training, managing risk and coordinating class rosters and inmate attendance.
He said the department offers about 40 classes a week ranging from personal finances to parenting and GED test preparation.
Swafford said Puckett has taken steps to curb the cost of turnover.
“We have implemented a less expensive uniform during the probation period,” Swafford said. “We are in talks with the Alabama Department of Labor about an on-the-job training program that provides federal monies for new hires during their training period. It has the potential to recoup up to 50% of their pay during the training for qualified individuals.”
Puckett and Long said open dialogue between their offices is another step in the right direction.
“Trained, experienced people in the jail is what we’ve got to have,” Long said. “We’ve got money invested in them that is going somewhere else when they leave. Limestone pays about $15 an hour. It wouldn’t make sense for somebody to stay here for $11.65 when they can go over there for $15. They’re getting some experience on their resume here and leaving. We’re going to try to stop that trend. I certainly don’t blame them for that. The only reason anybody works is for the money. If they quit paying us, we’ll all be slow to show up.”
County records showed in December 2017, under former Sheriff Ana Franklin, 13 jailers left and 17 were hired in. In February 2018, eight jailers were deleted from the payroll.
“Turnover has been here forever,” Long said. “Sheriff Puckett and I are working to come up with solutions. I can’t do it by myself and he can’t do it by himself. We have to work as a team and get it done.”