June 27. 2013 10:08PM

Jail's help-wanted list keeps getting longer at Rockingham County House of Correction

Union Leader Correspondent

The Rockingham County House of Corrections in Brentwood is struggling to find nine new corrections officers and a supervisor to fill vacancies that a union official says are part of a record turnover at the jail.

Superintendent Steve Church said he's never had so many job openings at one time and finding qualified applicants is tough. Church said he was told that four more officers may be leaving soon.

The vacancies come as corrections officers enter their fourth year without a new contract and pay raises. Negotiations resumed in April, but whether county and union representatives will reach an agreement anytime soon remains to be seen.

"We can't give them the whole world, but we're trying to meet somewhere that makes the union and the county happy," said Rockingham County Commissioner Tom Tombarello, who was elected in September and serves on the county's negotiating team.

With corrections officers trying to fill the gaps until more officers are hired, commissioners agreed Wednesday to set aside $237,000 to cover anticipated overtime hours at the jail through the end of the year.

The jail's work force includes 73 corrections officers and 14 supervisors. Church admitted that the job of a corrections officer is difficult.

"It's a maximum security to a minimum security facility. These are sworn law enforcement officers and they're dealing with anything that comes their way and they're very good at it," he said.

The jail's population fluctuates between 300 and 320 inmates on a daily basis.

"You name the crime, it's in here," Church said.

The base starting pay for a corrections officer is $14.90 an hour.

Tombarello said that one corrections officer left for a security job at Manchester's Elliot Hospital where he'll make $3 more an hour.

"You could go to Hannaford for $12 an hour and get the carriages in the parking lot and you don't have to be stuck in there with inmates. It's a very tough job. It's not like you're going to a job where people are happy," Tombarello said.

Corrections officers make up the largest group of employees involved in the contract dispute.

"The turnover that's been going on since contract expiration, from our records, is record-setting. We're extremely concerned about the staffing levels and we cannot stress enough the importance of having a contract in place." said Jeff Padellaro, business agent for Teamsters Union Local 633 and the lead union negotiator.

He said the turnover is also costing the county money because replacing an officer costs an estimated $30,000 to cover training, uniforms and other job-related expenses.

Padellaro estimated that in the next 2½ years over 30 percent of the current workforce will be eligible for retirement.

"This group in the past 15 years has been without a contract more than they have had a contract," he said.

Church said the jail has tried everything to find qualified help, including visiting job fairs.

But of the thick stack of resumes from interested applicants, Church said only about 10 to 15 percent have the right qualifications.

Tombarello said he's "hopeful" that a new contract agreement may be reached, but cautioned, "I wouldn't say I'm optimistic."