Lancaster County Prison (Source: Lancaster County)
Lancaster County Prison (Source: Lancaster County)

The Lancaster County commissioners are considering using federal Covid-19 relief funds to pay one-time hiring bonuses and retention bonuses to prison employees in order to stem an acute staffing shortage.

Warden Cheryl Steberger

Following a discussion of the idea at Tuesday's work session, the commissioners directed county administrators to prepare a proposal for consideration next week.

The county has yet to decide on any bonus amounts or calculate how much funding would be needed, Chief Clerk Larry George said. Administrators plan to meet with union representatives on Wednesday, he said, after which a plan can be developed and budget estimates calculated.

The goal would be to draft a side agreement rather than reopen the contract, he said.

The prison is budgeted for a staff of 228. Normally it has a handful of vacancies, but lately the number has shot up, and now stands at 62, Warden Cheryl Steberger said.

Prison Covid-19 outbreak

Complicating Warden Cheryl Sterberger's staffing challenges at the Lancaster County Prison is the Covid-19 outbreak there.

On Aug. 19, LNP reported 63 inmates had tested positive. The number has since climbed to 72, out of a population of 741 inmates as of Tuesday, Steberger said.

So far, no one has required hospitalization. Positive cases have been isolated from the general population, which necessitated opening additional housing units, she said.

Seven staff members have tested positive as well, and are recovering at home, she said.

The prison has imposed universal masking and has suspended outside visitation.

Steberger said she's losing too many employees with 3 to 10 years of experience — the veterans who "have been holding the place together" — and can't find people to replace them. The prison's wage package, which starts at $18.50 for new hires, is just too low, she said.

Convenience stores like Sheetz are paying comparable wages, she said, and offer better working conditions than she can at a prison that largely lacks air conditioning. Starting wages for prison employees in surrounding counties are above $20: York County is paying as much as $23.80, or 28% more than Lancaster County.

"We need to incentivize," Steberger said.

The proposed bonuses would most likely come from the county's roughly $106 million American Rescue Plan allocation. The ARP Act provides for a broad range of eligible uses, including hiring essential workers and providing premium pay to staff performing essential duties.

The payments may also be eligible under the CARES Act. If so, the county should use CARES money instead, Commissioner Josh Parsons said, so as to keep its options open for the ARP funds, which are more flexible.

The county has yet to announce a plan for using its ARP funding; it has until the end of 2024 to budget it and until the end of 2026 to spend it.

The County Prison's budget is about $30 million. Of that, a little over two-thirds goes toward wages and benefits, according to county budget documents.

Parsons blamed the prison's plight on the federal government, saying the Biden administration has stoked inflation and discouraged work through overly generous welfare benefits.

Commissioner Craig Lehman pointed out that the prison's poor condition and relatively low wage rates predate the coronavirus pandemic. Parsons conceded that "it's a tough place to work" — something the commissioners hope will improve with the construction of a new facility — but that nevertheless positions could be filled until the current hiring crisis, which developed very rapidly.

Tim Stuhldreher