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Yellowstone County jail workers call for higher starting wages to shore up staffing shortage

detention center 2.png
Detention center 1.png
Posted at 10:16 PM, May 16, 2023

BILLINGS - Detention officers at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility in Billings say that an exploding inmate population and shortage of staff is creating a crisis that has hindered their ability to maintain a safe and secure environment for both them and the inmates in the jail.

“It puts a lot of stress on the officers here. We are doing forced double shifts, which are 16-hour shifts. A lot of them are doing them twice a week, so it is just a ton of burnout right now,” says Danya-Dee Webb, who has spent over 20 years as an officer at the jail.

She says she has never seen it this bad.

“We are usually accepting only violent offenders right now because we are at an all-time high inmate-wise, so there are a lot of gang members in here in the facility and there’s a lot of fighting going on and officer assaults are also at an all-time high right now,” she says.

This is at a time when the union that represents the officers, Teamsters Local No. 190, says the jail has been down at least 20 officers for over two years.

“When I first started I had so much experience around me training me. We probably had at least 15 officers with more than five years’ experience on the floor. Right now, through the whole facility, we only have six officers with only five years of experience. It’s a lot of officers that are new and aren’t as equipped or have the knowledge to run this place as it used to,” says Jake Dunker, who has been a detention officer for around ten years.

In an effort to address the shortage and recruit and retain more officers, the union is calling on Yellowstone County commissioners to raise the starting wage to $26 an hour. It currently stands at $21.54.

In a letter to commissioners, the union also pointed to the dangers being poised by the facility operating beyond capacity and said the facility itself is in a state of despair with frequent water leaks, a persistent sewer smell, and a control room that often loses power.

Q2 News reached out to all three Yellowstone County Commissioners for comment but received no response Tuesday.

Dwight Vigness, the head of human resources for the county, told Q2 that the county did meet with the union and offered a signing bonus of $550 after three months, another $550 at six months, and $1,100 after a year in an attempt to shore up the staffing shortage.

Officers say they are concerned what could happen if the problem isn’t fixed and soon.

“It’s a crisis right now for staffing and we are begging the commissioners for more money so we can get solid applicants and get them through the door and get them to actually stay,” says Webb.