Lack of Court Staff Adds Stress, Overtime at Douglas County Court

LINCOLN. Ron Murtaugh, administrator of the Douglas County Court, remembers the days when there were 100 applicants for a job.

Now, he says, he was lucky to get 20.

“We have jobs that are so hard to fill that some of them are now marked Open to Fill,” Murtaugh said.

His supervisors are constantly training new employees, he says, because turnover has also increased.

Just like the state penitentiary system, state patrol, and state transportation department, the Nebraska judiciary has struggled to retain and replace employees in positions ranging from court reporters to probation officers. These are jobs that pay between $28,000 and $58,000 a year.

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Hevikan, in his annual State of the Judiciary report on Tuesday, highlighted the judiciary’s efforts to address the shortage of staff.

Bonuses, job fairs, videos

The official who heads the hiring judiciary said several new steps have been taken to hire new workers, including offering hiring bonuses and referrals, attending more college job fairs and making videos touting the benefits of working in the public service. .

In addition, salary increases for about a third of the judiciary’s staff, mostly those of the courts of first instance, were approved last year.

Gene Cotter, assistant administrator for operations, said the effort is paying off in many areas of the state, although a shortage of workers remains in some positions and in some areas of the state, he said, referring to Douglas County.

As of January 1, the judiciary posted 121 job openings, including probation officer, clerk, and drug specialist (who perform drug tests on probationers).

Jobs are shrinking

As of Feb. 15, vacancies had fallen to 89 of approximately 1,600 positions in the Nebraska Supreme Court, district courts, and probation services.

Kotter said the vacancy rate of 5% statewide is about the same as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a marked improvement over last summer, when there were about 200 vacancies in the judiciary.

“It’s still a number,” he said of 89 jobs. “It’s not a number falling from the sky.”

Meanwhile, Murtaugh said about one in five positions in the Douglas County court system is unfilled, and the vacancy rate in the probate department, which handles guardianship, wills, estates and adoptions, is 45%.

Murtaugh said his court staff is doing their best and using more overtime. The pool of available labor is simply smaller, he said, and while the judiciary has raised wages, so have other agencies and private employers.

Compensation Study

This year, the Nebraska Legislature was asked to increase the wages of probation officers based on a compensation study conducted by the judiciary. Job placement bonuses, first offered in 2021, have been increased to $3,000.

Kotter said many people are unaware of the broad nature of work in courts and probation systems. Recruitment videos focus on employee feedback on their work, he said.

To help judicial districts that lack probation officers, Kotter added that some officers have been transferred from one district to another to help.

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