Douglas County jail recovers from pandemic staffing shortages

Jan. 23, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

Douglas County Department of Corrections, Omaha. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

Douglas County Jail has been struggling with staffing shortages since the beginning of the pandemic. But things are finally starting to turn around.

Cpl. Song Neal has worked at the Douglas County Jail since 2017. She said the jail is a revolving door for many employees, and COVID caused a staffing shortage that took a long time to come back from.

“COVID happened. The military happened and called all their people back. And then the normal people that we normally would use. And that just created a huge deficit in one moment,” Neal said.

Bryan Laux is the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, which represents correctional officers in Douglas County. He said the jail usually employs around 400 staff members. At the height of the shortages, however, staffing was down to less than 350.

“The staffing shortages are hard on everybody,” Laux said. “We’ve got a lot of staff members that are working overtime. They’re doing 12 to 16 hour days a few times a week.”

Neal is one of those staff members. She said her typical shift is from 1 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“With us short on staff and having to do 16 hour shifts, everybody just buckled down and did what we knew we had to do. It was frustrating but we knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Neal said.

Neal said the corrections employees did what they could to support each other during the pandemic. As the overtime limit rose from 24 to 40 hours per week, she said her coworkers swapped shifts to make sure the jail stayed up and running.

“Everybody did their part. Just trying to make it easier on each other. And it worked. We got through it,” Neal said.

Negotiations for a new union contract began in May 2022. Laux said the county administration approached the union about raising wages in order to compete with other correctional facilities in the state. Douglas County jail employees were leaving for Sarpy County, the state penitentiary and other facilities for higher wages.

“A lot of other agencies had already set their contracts in stone,” Neal said. “We’re thinking to ourselves, 'When is it going to be our turn?'”

After over six months of negotiations, a new contract was approved in December. The new contract raised wages for corrections employees by roughly $7 per hour. Since then, application numbers have spiked.

“County provided me with a job that I could grow in, be part of something big, and become a family with my fiancé,” Neal said. “I never imagined the starting pay at this job would be $30 an hour, when just a few years ago it was $17.35.”