State on the verge of another wage dispute with law enforcement officers

According to the state troopers' union, they are significantly behind municipal police and county sheriff's agencies.

LINCOLN, Nebraska — The state is on the verge of a new salary dispute with police enforcement officers.

In September, the union representing Nebraska State Troopers will begin negotiating a new labor contract with the state. According to the organization, troopers’ earnings are significantly lower than those of police officers and county deputies in the state.

Nationally, law enforcement agencies are in the midst of what some have labeled a “crisis” in hiring new officers. Authorities mention the pandemic, poor perceptions of police after the in-custody death of George Floyd in 2020, and the lengthy training procedure as reasons for the shortage of new police officers, deputies, and troopers.

Police lagging behind Lincoln and Omaha

According to union officials, though, low compensation is a factor.

The starting salary for state troopers in Nebraska is $51,105 per year, or $24.57 per hour. This is around $6 per hour less than what Lincoln and Papillion pay their new police officers and $5 per hour less than what Omaha pays its new cops.

According to the State Law Enforcement Bargaining Council, which negotiates for the state troopers, at least 14 law enforcement agencies in the state offer higher starting salaries than the State Patrol.

Even state correctional officers get a greater beginning salary than state troopers, $58,240 per year, compared to the $48,880 earned by state troopers.

“Our beginning wage is not competitive with the Nebraska labor market, which they must compete in.” “Not even close,” stated Gary Young, the bargaining council’s attorney.

Similar to other states

Typically, state labor agreements are determined by the wages paid in comparable states. And according to Governor Pete Ricketts and other state officials, Nebraska’s trooper salary is equivalent to that of similar states such as Iowa, Kansas, Indiana, and Oklahoma.

Iowa and Wyoming have lower starting salaries for state troopers ($47,757 and $48,713, respectively), whereas Wisconsin, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma pay more. Recently, the state of Oklahoma granted a 35 percent wage rise, increasing the salary from $49,438 to $66,638.

In Nebraska, the salary discussions with state troopers highlight the same issue that has plagued state correctional officers in recent years: while their pay was equal to neighboring states, it lagged well behind that of county jailers in Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy Counties.

Lower earnings were noted by corrections officers as a contributing cause to a scarcity of officers, dangerous working conditions, and record-high overtime expenses, all of which contributed to officers leaving for higher-paying county jail jobs.

A wage boost for corrections officers

After years of offering hiring bonuses and other incentives, the Ricketts administration agreed last year to a 40 percent pay rise for prison corporals and caseworkers, from $20 to $28 per hour.

The outcome? More than 400 new “protection services” employees have been hired, and a staffing “emergency” that had been in effect at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln since January 2019 to allow for fewer corrections officers to operate the institution has been lifted. From an all-time high of 427 in April to a record-low of 167 in June, there were a total of 167 fewer vacant positions in these security forces.

Young, a Lincoln attorney who represents SLEBC, stated that state troopers require the same type of pay increase that correctional officers received to fill ranks.

54 trooper openings

At the beginning of July, the State Patrol has 54 vacancies among its 482 authorized sworn officers.

The State Patrol has recently begun training 19 new state trooper recruits and is already recruiting for another training academy that will begin in January. The Patrol’s website uses the slogan “Patrol the Good Life” to promote a four-day work week.

Col. John Bolduc, the superintendent of the State Patrol, stated at a recent press conference that the Patrol faces the same difficulties in recruiting as other law enforcement agencies.

Overall, he stated that recruitment has been the greatest obstacle, not troop retention.

Increasing retirements nationwide

“Enforcement of the law is tough. “It’s not for everyone,” remarked Bolduc.

A poll conducted in 2021 by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. revealed that, on average, law enforcement agencies were only filling 93% of their authorized force.

While hiring was only down 5 percent, resignations and retirements increased significantly, with resignations up 18 percent and retirements up 45 percent from the previous year.

Longtime Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller stated earlier this year that applicants for positions in his central Nebraska law enforcement organization used to fill two rooms. Now, he’s lucky to receive six or seven candidates, he claimed.

Ricketts, who leaves office in January, recently stated that the compensation for Nebraska state troopers is equivalent to that of other states and that it will be up to the incoming governor to decide whether to issue pay rises akin to those given to prison officers.

A spokesperson for the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, which conducts labor negotiations, stated that trooper salaries in Nebraska are competitive.

The spokesman, Eric Maher, stated that current information on pay and other topics is being gathered in preparation for bargaining with the SLEBC union in the fall.

Low unemployment

The low unemployment rate in Nebraska, which reached a record low of 1.9% in June, has not aided the State Patrol’s recruitment efforts, according to Bolduc.

Young, the union attorney, argued that the state must be more aggressive in delivering competitive pay and must equal the salary increases granted by rival agencies. He stated that the troopers’ union requested labor discussions with the state a year ago in order to catch up with other agencies that were increasing pay, but was denied.

“The Patrol is far behind in every regard, and if they don’t fix it, problems will arise,” he warned.

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