State’s probation officers rally to push for pay increases

 

Todd Mumford, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 10 president, addresses Probation and Parole officers to encourage them to seek out legislators in hopes of pay increases. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Probation officer Gavin Bethell, 39, of Wilmington, has a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

But he still has to work almost 30 hours of overtime per week to support his family.

He says his work in probation is dangerous and stressful, and the overtime he puts in at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution (he’s cross-trained as a correctional officer) often leaves him exhausted and prevents him from spending quality time with his family.

“I’m happy to get the overtime both because I need the money to make ends meet and I have an opportunity to help prevent a correctional officer from getting frozen on a shift, but it’s a strain on time I get to spend with my family,” he said. “I try to do the overtime — around 16 to 24 hours per week — on the weekends or over night, so I can still see my two sons still and be there for my wife. At the end of it, I’m exhausted.”

Mr. Bethell was one of the more than 50 probation officers that took to Legislative Mall on Tuesday to urge legislators to increase officer wages ahead of upcoming Joint Finance Committee hearings. The officers feel that the level of education and demand of the job aren’t justified by the compensation package currently on offer.

Todd Mumford, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police Probation/Parole Lodge 10, encouraged rallied officers to push their legislators to make “reasonable changes” to wages.

“Our people deserve better and we need to do right by them, and we need to fix the problem,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s not even going to take a whole lot of money to do, they could probably do everything we want, and more, for less than $3 million. With a $4 billion state budget, that’s a drop in the hat.”

Mr. Mumford noted that probation officer starting salaries and structure for raises competes poorly with neighboring states, making recruitment difficult.

Starting salary for Maryland’s probation and parole officers is $39,251 and slides to a maximum (without rising to the rank of supervisor) of $70,255. Pennsylvania pays a starting salary of $44,753 with a maximum of $77,577 and New Jersey pays $57,000 to start with a max of $102,858.

Delaware’s starting salary for its probation officers is $35,888 with a maximum of $52,062 without becoming a supervisor.

“If you look at the comparisons, we’re tremendously underpaid — especially for the level of education we have,” said Mr. Mumford.

“Even in Maryland, whose officers have no law enforcement authority whatsoever, they start a few thousand dollars per year more than us but by the time they’ve had 20 years on the job, they’re at $20,000 more per year.”

More troubling, Mr. Mumford says, is after the legislature approved two increases in starting salaries for the state’s correctional officers, having a competitive package locally is just as out of reach as it is regionally.

After new salary increases take affect in early July, correctional officers will make starting salaries of $43,000 to probation officers’ $41,508 after initial training. Probation officer must hold a bachelor degree as well, while correctional officers need only a high school diploma or GED.

Because of the low pay for the position, despite the high bar to entry, Mr. Mumford claims that the state’s probation officers can hardly pay their bills.

“It’s a tragedy when a college-educated law enforcement professional in the state of Delaware can qualify for welfare benefits, but I know a few,” he said.

“We recently did a survey of our staff and between 63 and 73 percent — depending on the department — of the staff either works a second job or works overtime in the prisons to augment their salaries.

“Recently, one officer who’s a single mother told me that because of the her heating bills were so high from a cold spring, she had to move her three kids all into one room in their house and shut everything down until she could catch up. They lived together in one room eating food from a nearby food pantry, that’s just not right.”

Mr. Bethell considers correctional officers close peer and often works alongside them, so he understands the need for the recent increase in their starting salaries — especially in light of the Feb. 1 riot last year at Vaughn Prison that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

“The officer who died in Smyrna was a fraternity brother of mine and the incident affected us all deeply,” said Mr. Bethell. “They need help and they deserve the pay raise they got, the job is hard. But, I think we certainly deserve at least the same amount of pay they get.”

Although he concedes that both jobs can be dangerous, being a probation officer lends itself to a lot of unpredictability, he said.

“Prisons are a semi-controlled environment, inmates have very limited access to things that can be used as weapons,” said Mr. Bethell. “We’re dealing with the same basic population, because many of them are eventually released, but we go into their homes and we often don’t know what we’re walking into.

“I’ve got guys on my caseload who were previously charged for manslaughter or murder. If they reoffend now or get new charges, they may be facing 20 or 30 years in prison so there’s a good chance they may not want to go down easy. If we walk into their house unannounced, I never know who’s in there and wwhat they have hidden.

“Several months ago I walking in a found an ounce of raw heroin with a street value of more than $10,000, cocaine and firearm ammunition.

“On top of that, we don’t always know the mental states of our offenders cause there are a lot with severe mental health and addiction issues. It makes for an unpredictable situation.”

Although a salary increase won’t make his work less dangerous, Mr. Bethell feels that it’d reduce the amount of overtime he was forced to work and resulting exhaustion.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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