OLIVIA — The Renville County Sheriff’s Office is asking the Renville County Board of Commissioners to allow it to intentionally overstaff the jail as a possible solution to a long-standing staffing shortage.
Due to turnover and difficulties in recruiting workers in the current labor market, the Renville County Jail has been unable to maintain full staffing levels during recent years.
“But at this point, it has risen to a level where it is a crisis for us,” Sheriff Scott Hable told the commissioners at their meeting on Sept. 21.
A recent injury to an employee has exacerbated the staffing shortage, but Hable and Jail Administrator Ned Wohlman emphasized that the problem has been ongoing. Since the start of the year, the jail has been at its full staffing level for only two weeks.
Along with part-time help, the jail is authorized to maintain a staff of 14 full-time corrections officers. The Sheriff’s Office is asking to increase the level to 16.
The sheriff and jail administrator emphasized that jails across the state are contending with the same staffing challenges.
County Human Resources Director Lisa Neutgens recommended intentional overstaffing as a possible strategy. She learned about a neighboring county that reported some success with it.
County Administrator Lisa Herges endorsed the approach as well. She cited safety as well as financial benefits. Herges noted that the jail must maintain the appropriate complement of staff on duty 24/7, no matter their circumstances. That leaves it with only the more costly option of assigning licensed police officers to fill staffing gaps.
Current jail staff are managing to keep the on-duty roster filled, but at a cost to their personal lives.
“It’s tough back there right now,” said Sheriff Hable. “The crew that we have are rock stars. They are keeping us afloat, day-to-day, but I don’t know how long it is sustainable. We need to do something different.”
Wohlman, Hable and Melissa Swyter, the assistant jail administrator, described how difficult it has been to tell long-term employees that they cannot take long-planned vacations due to the staffing shortages. Workers are working longer shifts and putting in overtime hours. They are also unable to enroll in training programs in which they are interested because of the scheduling challenges, added Swyter.
There’s a snowball effect, Wohlman told the commissioners. The difficulties increase staff turnover, which in turn means the remaining staff needs to put in more hours to make up for the loss.
The administrators said it can take three to four weeks to bring a new person on board after someone has given their two-week notice. It can take about three months of training to bring a new hire to the skill level to comfortably do their job, they added.
They also emphasized the importance of retaining experienced workers. No matter the training offered, it takes a lot longer than three months to replace someone with 10 years of experience, Hable said.
Exit interviews give no single reason for the turnover. Money, the hours, overnight shifts, and weekend and holiday duty are factors.
“There are things about work in jails that are not necessarily pleasant,” added the sheriff. Many leave because they discover that work in corrections is not for them.
Underlying it all is the fact that the current labor market allows the jail workers to readily find other jobs with comparable pay, he said.
Swyter told the commissioners that the jail has a very good reputation and it has seen some success in employing persons who are interested in careers in corrections. But the pool of people interested in that career field is very limited, and likely to only get smaller.
Hable and Wohlman said jails attempt to recruit recent graduates of law enforcement programs looking to begin their careers. Law enforcement programs in the region have seen their enrollments plummet in recent years. The graduates have plenty of opportunities to go directly into law enforcement work.
The commissioners will act at their next meeting on the request to overstaff the jail. It’s estimated that the practice could increase staffing costs by more than $100,000 a year. In each of the past three years, the jail has seen its staffing costs come in under budget by well more than $100,000 due to the staffing shortage, according to information provided at the meeting.