Illinois Democrats Sens. Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Eric Sorenson have called for the reinstatement of a Bureau of Prisons retention pay program at Federal Correctional Institute Thomson in Carroll County, Illinois.

Illinois Democrats Sens. Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Eric Sorenson have called for the reinstatement of a Bureau of Prisons retention pay program at Federal Correctional Institute Thomson in Carroll County, Illinois. Anadolu / Getty Images

Union decries end to retention pay at embattled Illinois prison

Labor leaders at Federal Correctional Institute Thomson said the Bureau of Prisons’ termination of a short-lived initiative to retain employees at the rural facility with a 25% boost to pay will cause hundreds to leave the agency.

Union leaders at a rural federal prison in Illinois this week blasted the leadership of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for terminating a program designed to retain employees by offering supplemental pay, despite lingering issues with staffing the facility.

The Federal Correctional Institute Thomson is located in a remote area along the Illinois-Iowa border. For over a decade, government officials have struggled to adequately staff the facility, leading to its sale by the state to the Justice Department in 2012.

In 2020, labor and management at the facility appealed to the Federal Salary Council, an advisory body that issues recommendations on changes to federal locality pay areas, to include the facility’s jurisdiction—Carroll County—to the Davenport-Moline, Iowa-Ill., locality pay area. The Trump administration rebuffed that request, but it ultimately was approved in 2021 and implemented in 2022.

And in 2022, the Office of Personnel Management authorized retention pay incentives for the facility to the tune of 25% of base pay, the largest available without applying for an additional waiver citing critical agency needs.

But Jon Zumkehr, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4070, which represents employees at FCI Thomson, said that as of Jan. 1, when the retention pay program was terminated, the prison employed around 400 workers, still short of the 471 authorized for the facility. And over the past two years, turnover remains high, with more than 200 separations, while an additional 20 workers scheduled to leave by the end of January.

“The retention bonus is a Band-Aid; it doesn’t actually fix anything, but it keeps staff at Thomson,” Zumkehr said. “[Bureau of Prisons] Director Colette Peters testified and told Congress that our officers are underpaid and that she wants tools to fix it. Well, Congress already gave her a tool, and that’s retention pay, but she terminated it.”

Part of the prison’s struggle is its remote location, Zumkehr said, along with tough competition with other regional employers. Several factories in the area pay more than the prison does, and Amazon is gearing up to open a facility in Davenport, Iowa.

“I sent out a questionnaire when they first talked about either modifying or removing [the retention pay],” Zumkehr said. “And 147 staff said in writing that they would leave if it was removed—33% of our workforce.”

In a statement to Government Executive, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Donald Murphy said the decision to terminate retention pay at FCI Thomson was made due to a combination of the facility’s transition from a special management unit to a low-security prison that began earlier this year and improved staffing numbers.

“Since converting to a low-security institution, the conditions giving rise to the original determination to pay the incentive no longer exist,” he said. “Therefore, this group retention incentive was not continued.”

But Zumkehr said the conditions are geographic, not programmatic, pointing to the continued high turnover while retention pay was still in place. He noted that the union partnered with management to hold 56 job fairs over the course of 2023, but still can’t reach the facility’s workforce target.

“It’s not fair to compare, say, a prison in Oxford, [Wisc.], which is at 79% staffing while we’re at 84%,” he said. “They’re near a major city [in Madison], they haven’t exhausted the resources in their town and local area. That’s one thing Sen. [Tammy] Duckworth, [D-Ill.], said in writing, that we’ve exhausted the resources. There just isn’t a pool of people to hire from.”

In a joint statement, Duckworth, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Eric Sorenson, both D-Ill., urged the resumption of the supplemental pay program at FCI Thomson.

“For years, we have worked to support staffing at Thomson, including advocating for retention and recruitment bonuses and direct hire authority, following an understaffing crisis at the facility worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said. “When news of Thomson’s mission change was announced, we encouraged Director Peters to keep the 25% retention bonus in place to ensure that Thomson would be fully staffed. It is critical that BOP leadership prioritizes retention and recruitment efforts to incentivize employees to continue working at the facility and to help the prison run safely and efficiently.”

Just before the retention pay program was terminated, Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to keep the program in place.

“Because of its remote location, cost of living, low morale and challenges to working conditions, FCI Thomson has endured years of high turnover and dangerous understaffing,” she wrote. “To address this, the federal Bureau of Prisons authorized a 25% retention pay in early 2022. If the retention pay is not restored, there is likely to be an immediate loss of current personnel and difficulty with recruitment and retention going forward.”

And labor sources indicated to Government Executive that the issue is being elevated further, with AFL-CIO representatives urging the White House to get involved.

In the meantime, with employees facing the prospects of what amounts to a 20% cut in basic pay in their next paycheck, many now plan to look for jobs elsewhere.

“I’ve talked to some staff [this week], and some are looking for second jobs just to get by right now, but a lot are applying at the factories, the railroad or elsewhere,” Zumkehr said. “We will have a mass exodus. There’s no doubt about it.”

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