|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
Wyoming is known for its endless plains and towering blue mountains, but those spacious, breathtaking scenes might have one downside. In a state where more than 90 percent of the land is classified as rural, finding available and affordable housing on a CO’s salary is increasingly rare. To stop officers from leaving their jobs, the Wyoming Department of Corrections is offering its own solution to the housing gap, but the plan is not without risks.
“Nationally, recruiting in corrections has been and continues to be a challenge, and Wyoming is not particularly different,” says WYDOC Deputy Director Steve Lindly. “We have to recruit nationally and we have made a strong concerted effort to do that for the past year and a half, sending out recruiting teams on a monthly basis. But one of the hindrances we’ve had, and we’ve lost staff as a result, is we have new staff come in, go through training, but then are unable to find long term housing. It has impacted our ability to fill our positions or vacancies.”
The root of the problem can be traced to Wyoming’s booming energy industry and its high paying jobs that attract the bulk of the state’s workforce. According to Lindly, even though the state has increased pay over the last three or four years for its COs, entry level salaries are still modest.
“Our challenge might be slightly compounded by how rural the state is, as well as the large number of available energy industry jobs,” Lindly explains. “Those jobs tend to be higher paying for laboring type jobs, and they pay substantially more than we’re able to pay for people in the area."
These factors, along with natural gas, coal, and oil extraction jobs and the related influx of energy workers, drives Wyoming’s economy and creates housing shortages. This leaves few affordable living opportunities for new COs. Located in Carbon County with a population of about 8,500, the city of Rawlins is one of many in Wyoming facing this challenge. Department officials say the tight housing market has contributed to a vacancy rate of up to one-third of officer positions at the Rawlins prison this year.
“Rawlins has our main high security men’s penitentiary, and it’s in a location that is impacted by this situation,” Lindly explains. “We have approximately 430 staff at that facility if it’s fully staffed. So it’s a sizable employer in that smaller community. The city is having the same issue as WYDOC; its teachers and service workers, those people don’t have high income but need housing. So we were in discussion for a long time with them looking at possible solutions.”
Through its talks with the city, WYDOC realized that state owned housing wasn’t going to be an option, so it searched for other options.
“We’ve requested proposals from private developers to potentially lease up to 50 housing units,” Lindly says. “We’ve never tried this before and to my knowledge I don’t know any other state agency in Wyoming that has done this.”
Housing type and location would be up to the developer, but many COs say they're looking for something that they can move into quickly.
“The majority of the new people coming in tend to prefer to rent for a while,” Lindly adds. “So the most immediate need for the housing would be for the new staff, and that the majority of them would most appreciate if we had more rental capacity.”
The plan does present some risks for the department since there is no guarantee that it will be able to fill all the units.
“We know without the housing we won’t get positions filled,” Lindly says. “We’re starting with 50 units based on the average number of vacancies. The downside is if we were unable to fill them or all of them, we’ll still be responsible for leasing them. So the plan is not without its risks.”
The rental rates have not been worked out yet, and developers have until December 21 to submit proposals. For now, the WYDOC feels it has no choice but to take the risk and see what happens.
“Without some change in the circumstances,” Lindly says, “we just aren’t going to be able to make the headway we need to.”
See a slideshow of photos from Rawlins, WY
More on the challenges of recruiting
The issues with affordable housing in WY
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