The head of the Montana Department of Corrections on Wednesday told lawmakers his office is still in the negotiating process with the state prison's union.
Negotiations with the prison's union flared up last month when the Federation of Montana State Prison Employees Local 4700 voted 60-0 to engage in concerted activity, a step toward a potential strike.
Department Director Brian Gootkin told the Legislature's public safety budget subcommittee during an interim meeting at the Capitol that pay appears to be the biggest issue in the current negotiations, but added the department's biennial budget, approved earlier this year, may have some wiggle-room to boost pay.
Compounding the current pay issue is a workforce shortage at the 1,600-bed facility outside Deer Lodge, he said. In the last four years, the prison has been short 36 to 41 officers on any given day, he said. A report to the Legislature earlier this year said the facility had about 700 employees. Correctional officers make about $4 less per hour than the larger county jails around the state, he added.
"It's a very difficult, difficult job, that type of environment and what they deal with," Gootkin told the committee. "And then you add mandatory overtime, 12-hour shifts sometimes and that stress. … They need to be compensated."
Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen nodded to the shallow workforce pool in the prison's immediate area, saying the shortage has persisted since before the pandemic. Now the communities surrounding the prison, too, are increasing their wages in hopes of recruiting workers.
"I sleep very well at night knowing we have dedicated staff who are there," Salmonsen told the committee. "If we could look at increasing the wage to something reasonable, that would be a very good start for this and help out these officers."
Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, asked the corrections officials whether the budget set by the Legislature earlier this year has enough flexibility to provide a higher wage.
"We believe that we do," Gootkin said, adding his department spoke earlier in the day with the state budget office and the Department of Administration to work out the possibilities.
Gootkin briefly acknowledged the union's vote last month to take potential steps toward a strike. After its August meeting with state officials, the union left the bargaining table ready to continue negotiating.