LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — The state is headed for another battle over adequate pay for law enforcement officers.
In September, the union that represents Nebraska State Troopers will begin bargaining with the state over a new labor contract, and they maintain that troopers’ salaries are lagging far behind the pay for police officers and county deputies in the state.
The negotiations come as, nationally, law enforcement agencies are facing what some are labeling a “crisis” in recruiting new officers. Authorities cite the pandemic, negative impressions of police following the in-custody death of George Floyd in 2020 and the long training process required for causing the lag in attracting new police officers, deputies and troopers.
Lags behind Lincoln, Omaha police
But low pay, according to union officials, is part of it.
Starting pay for Nebraska state troopers is $51,105 a year, or $24.57 an hour. That is about $6 an hour less than what new police officers are paid in Lincoln and Papillion and $5 an hour less than the pay for new Omaha police officers.
All told, at least 14 law enforcement agencies in the state have higher starting pay than the State Patrol, according to the State Law Enforcement Bargaining Council, which negotiates for the state troopers.
Even state corrections officers earn higher starting salaries than state troopers: $58,240 a year.
“Our starting wage is not competitive with the labor market in Nebraska that they need to be competitive with. Not even close,” said Gary Young, the attorney for the bargaining council.
Comparable to other states
State labor negotiations are typically decided based on wages paid in comparable states. And Gov. Pete Ricketts and other state officials say that when Nebraska’s trooper pay is compared with similar states, such as Iowa, Kansas, Indiana and Oklahoma, state trooper pay here is comparable.
Iowa and Wyoming offer lower starting pay ($47,757 and $48,713, respectively), while new state troopers in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma paid more. Oklahoma pays the best after recently granting a 35% pay increase, raising the pay from $49,414 to $66,638.
In Nebraska, the salary negotiations with the state troopers raise the same issue faced by state corrections officers in recent years: While their salaries were comparable with nearby states, their pay was far behind what county jailers were being paid in nearby Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties.
Corrections officers cited the lower wages as contributing to a shortage of officers, dangerous working conditions and record-high overtime expenses – factors causing officers to leave to work for higher paying county jail jobs.
Hourly pay for starting law enforcement officers
Lincoln Police $30.83
Papillon Police $30.08
Lancaster County $30.04
Omaha Police $29.85
Douglas County $29.23
Neb. Corrections $28.00
York Police $27.17
Kearney Police $26.86
State Patrol $24.57
N. Platte Police $24.16
Adams County $23.70
Lincoln County $23.31
Hastings Police $23.21
SOURCE: Nebraska Law Enforcement Bargaining Council
Corrections workers’ pay raise
After years of offering hiring bonuses and other incentives, the Ricketts administration agreed last year to a major hike pay for corrections corporals and caseworkers, from $20 an hour to $28 an hour, a 40% increase.
The result? More than 400 new “protective services” employees have been hired, and a staffing “emergency” at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, in place since 2019 to allow fewer corrections officers to manage the prison, was lifted this month. Overall, staff vacancies among such security forces fell from a record-high 427 in April to 167 in June.
Young, a Lincoln attorney who represents SLEBC, said state troopers need the same kind of raise that corrections officers got to help fill the ranks.
54 trooper vacancies
As of early July, the State Patrol had 54 vacancies among sworn officers in an authorized force of 482.
The State Patrol recently began training a class of 19 new state trooper recruits and is already advertising for recruits for another training academy that begins in January. “Patrol the Good Life” is the tagline on the Patrol’s website, which touts a four-day work week.
At a recent press conference, Col. John Bolduc, the superintendent of the State Patrol, said the Patrol is facing the same challenges as other law enforcement agencies in filling the ranks.
Overall, he said, recruiting has been the biggest challenge, not retention of current troopers.
Retirements up nationally
“Law enforcement is challenging. It’s not for everybody,” Bolduc said.
A 2021 survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum found that law enforcement agencies, on average, were filling only 93% of their authorized force.
While hiring was only down 5%, the survey found that resignations and retirements took a big jump, with resignations up 18% over the previous year and retirements up 45%.
Earlier this year, longtime Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller said applicants for openings in his central-Nebraska law enforcement agency used to fill two rooms. Now, he said, he’s lucky to get six or seven applicants.
Yearly starting trooper pay in comparable states
* Pay during a probationary period
SOURCES: State highway patrol websites and spokespersons
Ricketts, who leaves office in January, said recently that pay for Nebraska state troopers is comparable with other states and that it will be up to the next governor to decide whether to grant pay raises similar to what corrections officers received.
A spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, which handles labor negotiations, also said that Nebraska’s wages for troopers compare favorably.
Eric Maher, the spokesman, added that updated information on wages and other matters is being collected in preparation for bargaining with the SLEBC union this fall.
Bolduc said Nebraska’s low unemployment rate, which sank to a record low of 1.9% in June, hasn’t helped the State Patrol’s recruitment efforts help.
Young, the union lawyer, said the state needs to be more aggressive in offering competitive wages and needs to match increases granted by competing agencies. He said the troopers union asked the state to hold labor talks a year ago, to catch up with other agencies that were raising pay but was turned down.
“The Patrol is way behind in every way, and if they don’t correct it, there’s going to be problems,” he said.
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