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Justice announces corrections officer state of emergency during COVID briefing; National Guard will help fill vacancies

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice topped his Thursday COVID briefing by talking about the statewide correctional officer shortage and announced he’s declared a state of emergency to enable the National Guard to assist the Department of Homeland Security until more people are hired.

The problem is low pay, he said, particularly in the Eastern Panhandle.

“We just haven’t been able to compete and attract folks into these positions,” he said. A bill to allow for locality pay to address competition across state lines failed during the legislative session.

His emergency declaration, he said, empowers the Guard to assist DHS for up to a year. He doesn’t yet have final figures on how many Guard members will be needed to help fill vacancies in adult and juvenile facilities.

Justice expanded on the problem in a press release issued shortly after.

DHS and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation worked with a bipartisan group of legislators to sponsor the bill to allow for a $10,000 locality pay adjustment for correctional officers across the state where locality pay is necessary, he said. The bill passed out of the House Finance Committee but didn’t see a floor vote.

An entry-level correctional officer starts at $33,214, he said. That same position starts at $34,380 in Virginia; $37,630 in Ohio; $40,270 in Pennsylvania; and $43,370 in Maryland. “A noncompetitive starting salary coupled with the higher average cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia makes recruiting to these positions extremely difficult.”

The Potomac Highlands Regional Jail in Hampshire County has a vacancy rate of 64%, while the Vicki V. Douglas Juvenile Center in Berkeley County has a vacancy rate of 61%, he said.

The DCR has been forced to assign non-uniformed support staff to fill mandatory posts to ensure shift minimums are met, he said. While non-uniformed staff are filling these security posts, their duties and responsibilities are delayed or delegated, which leads to delays in programming and services.

DCR is also assigning “massive amounts of mandatory overtime” and assigning officers from other facilities to be temporarily assigned to the affected facilities, which requires DCR to pay per diem and travel expenses out of budgets that are already stretched thin, he said.

“Along with budgetary strain, the human factor of correctional officers having to work seemingly endless overtime, spending assigned time away from family or their immediate support system, adds additional burden and strain to an employee’s home life. These combining factors contribute to burnout and in return cause additional vacancies in other facilities,” he said.

COVID news

Active cases stood at 3,250 on Thursday, with 1,023 new cases reported. Hospitalizations stood at 373, with 57 in ICUs and eight on ventilators.

COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh said the nation saw 175,000 new cases on Wednesday. Because people often aren’t reporting cases anymore, it’s believed the real number is anywhere from five-to-10 times higher than that.

The vast majority of COVID-related deaths, he said, are in the over-50 age group — 95% — with 77% in the over-65 group. But only 30% of that group is fully vaccinated and boosted. “That is certainly too little.”

While the omicron-specific vaccines probably won’t arrive until October, he said, people shouldn’t wait until then. Vaccines and boosters are the most-effective means to avoid serious illness and death from the BA.5 omicron variant.

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp