By Yasmine Jumaa and Brandon Celentano
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Correctional officers from across Virginia watched Tuesday as a state lawmaker urged support for legislation aimed at reducing turnover among prison guards and making it easier for them to get workers’ compensation.
“I think currently we have a tremendous injustice going on,” said Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun. “Out of the 14 [categories of] peace officers in Virginia, the only peace officer who does not get the presumption of disability is our correctional officer.”
Bell is sponsoring House Bill 107, which would add correctional officers to the list of public safety employees entitled to receive workers’ compensation under the presumption that hypertension, heart disease and other ailments may stem from their stressful jobs. Bell said some correctional officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The stress levels on officers is very high, which could lead to a variety of different heart diseases over prolonged periods of time,” Bell said. “It’s a tough and hazardous job where officers have been measured with PTSD that far exceeds combat veterans.”
Bell has also introduced HB 108, which would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to conduct an exit survey of correctional officers who quit. The survey would ask them about work conditions and other concerns that may contribute to high turnover.
Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, said low salaries may be a factor.
“You have to work two, three jobs sometimes to address your needs and your family’s because your salaries aren’t up to par to make a living,” said Tyler, who is co-sponsoring the two bills. “That is just totally unreasonable.”
According to the Department of Corrections, 1,164 DOC employees, including 698 correctional officers, have salaries so low that they may be eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The JLARC study said correctional officers’ difficult jobs and low salaries may hurt attracting and retaining employees. Virginia prison guards had a 17 percent turnover rate over the past two years, and 16 percent of the positions have been vacant, the study said.
HB 107 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. On Tuesday, the subcommittee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the bill.
HB 108 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.