SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Two state lawmakers agree workers within the South Dakota Department of Corrections are being paid too little.
Both Sen. Troy Heinert (D-Mission) and Sen. Art Rusch (R-Vermillion) serve on the state Corrections Commission, a panel of legislators, judges and representatives of business and labor formed by state law in 2013. Low compensation for workers at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and other state DOC facilities is nothing new, both men agreed.
“No. 1 is our salaries are way too low,” Heinert, the chairman of the commission, told KELOLAND News. “It’s easier to find a job that pays better that isn’t as dangerous or as stressful.”
The starting hourly pay for a South Dakota Department of Corrections correctional officer is $17.89 per hour. Rusch noted the same starting position at the Minnehaha County Jail is at $20 an hour or more.
“It’s clearly a problem,” Rusch, the commission’s vice chairman, said. “That’s a tough job to have. If they aren’t being paid adequately, it’s tough to keep people.”
Higher salaries for state DOC workers was mentioned more than three times during Gov. Kristi Noem’s (R-S.D.) news conference last week, which followed Noem’s meeting with employees at the state penitentiary. DOC employees told KELOLAND News they asked Noem for better pay, more training and safer working conditions.
Some of South Dakota’s $85 million budget surplus could be used for new equipment and bonus pay, but Noem stressed changing the state’s salary policy would need to be tied with an ongoing revenue source set in the annual budget.
Rusch agreed with Noem and added funding ongoing expenses with one-time money “doesn’t work out.” He said the state’s Appropriations Committee would ultimately decide on salary increases for state workers.
“We’ve always tried to keep the same increases for all state employees,” Rusch said. “Not single-out some groups for greater increases, but maybe we’re going to have to do that.”
Sen. Jean Hunhoff (R-Yankton) is the Senate Appropriations Committee Chair and she stressed finding ways to increase pay for state workers is not a new issue. She admitted the issue of wages for DOC workers, specifically, has risen to the top because of the recent shakeup of leadership. She said discussions about higher pay have been ongoing for years.
Hunhoff said there are “large vacancies in all state departments” and noted past wage issues with the Human Services Center in Yankton. She said she believes many lawmakers will be looking forward to working with Gov. Noem about addressing salary increases for state employees.
Heinert said every year he’s served in the legislature around $20 million is put into reserve funds. He said funding higher wages for DOC workers would take a “considerable amount of money” but noted the solution could be similar to the 2016 decision to raise the state sales tax by one-half percent for teacher pay and property-tax relief.
“We are operating off the Governor’s budget. They get to decide whether that’s a priority for them,” Heinert said. “When it hasn’t been a priority that leads us to the place we are now.”
Heinert said salaries for DOC workers has been an issue since former Sen. Craig Tieszen chaired the Corrections Commission’s first meetings in 2014.
“The very first step is to accept the reality that we pay too low,” Heinert said. “We are not going to get people to apply if we continue to pay at the level we’re paying.”
Staffing concerns at the South Dakota State Penitentiary was added to the agenda for the July 9 meeting of the Corrections Commission.
At that meeting, Secretary of Corrections Mike Leidholt said DOC officials were planning a process with the Bureau of Human Resources to figure out how to increase wages.
As of Monday, Secretary Leidholt remains placed on administrative leave by Gov. Noem.
Working with Gov. Noem on DOC changes
Heinert said he has not spoken with Noem regarding any other proposed changes to the DOC system or Gov. Noem’s internal investigation of all of the DOC facilities.
Heinert said he’s in favor of an overhaul of the state’s Department of Corrections, but when it comes to new facilities, he’s not fully convinced.
“Just building a new building so we can lock people up for longer and be monitored by video is not something I’m going to support,” Heinert said. “We should work on the ultimate goal of not needing as much bed space as we do. We should look at our code and make sure we’re not locking people up for long periods of time for minor offenses.”
Rusch, a former Circuit Judge, said with the DOC and the criminal justice system as a whole, he’s focused “to try and rehabilitate people, rather than just punishing them.”
“I’m not sure a lot of my fellow legislators understand that’s really what we should really be trying to do,” Rusch said.