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Records show employee loss exaggerated at Oklahoma County jail

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The number of Oklahoma County jail employees who have left their jobs because of management uncertainty seems to have been exaggerated, according to a review of data from the sheriff’s office.

After the Oklahoma County Jail Trust voted in August to hire an outside administrator to run the jail rather than the sheriff, the number of jail employees who left their jobs spiked with 38 employees leaving in September, data shows.

It was the highest single month of turnover in the last two years. Sheriff P.D. Taylor has attributed the spike to confusion around employee futures under the trust, and the jail even discontinued some programming because of low staff levels.

But September was the only month showing a serious increase in the number of employees leaving, yet a narrative of the jail continuing to lose extraordinary numbers of employees because of the management transition and the jail trust has continued.

On multiple occasions, Taylor has said the jail is “hemorrhaging employees” because there are so many unanswered questions on topics like benefits and retirement funds.

“Prior to the trust forming, we were averaging about 22 employees a month in turnover. After the trust, these last few months, we’ve been running about 45 employees leaving a month,” Taylor said at a news conference on Dec. 10. “I am hemorrhaging people.”

But data obtained by The Oklahoman doesn’t support the claim that roughly double the number of employees have continued leaving after the trust was formed in May.

Between June and August, 70 employees left this year compared to 67 during the same time frame last year.

In October, two months after the trust voted to remove the sheriff from jail management, 25 people left compared to 18 last October. In November, 19 people left compared to 11 in November 2018.

In total between June and December, the jail had only lost 26 more employees than last year.

Currently, the jail is funded for 420 full-time employees but has fewer than 350 employed. Of those, about 195 work directly with inmates, according to a recent news release from the sheriff’s office.

So while it may be reasonable to attribute the September spike to uncertainty caused by the trust and to acknowledge the slight increase, Brandon Holmes, who manages data for the sheriff’s office, said there had been a misrepresentation.

Holmes said the difference between payroll cycles and calendar months, as well as multiple people chiming in when trying to calculate the exact number of employees leaving, added to the confusion.

“Do I think we’re losing double every month? No. But I think a combination of losing seven or eight more people per month plus having hiring academies go from 25 to eight people is where you see that huge reduction,” Holmes said, referring to the jail’s struggle to find applicants for jobs.

“The term we’re losing double the staff has been misrepresented. So there has been a misunderstanding of what is causing our numbers to go down. … I hate that there were these miscommunications.”

Taylor has said filling positions has been more difficult this year than last, which is likely the larger underlying issue.

“We’re getting a lot less applications because of all the media,” Taylor said. “Everybody knows it’s terrible working conditions, it’s low pay, the trust has taken over, there are a lot of unanswered questions. So it isn’t an attractive place to apply.”

Between June and Dec. 13, when the latest data was compiled, the jail has hired 127 employees compared to hiring 175 employees during the same time frame in 2018.

Sheriff’s office spokesperson Mark Myers said the office worked hard after the September spike to meet with staff and offer reassurances that the jail trust would end up OK, which he said may have contributed to not seeing higher turnover.

“We really worked to calm people down,” Myers said. “That September month was where we thought about ‘what are we going to do?’ But fortunately it has died down.”

Another problem Taylor has previously pointed to is that, of the employees leaving, many have worked at the jail for decades. When they leave, he said the jail is without institutional knowledge needed to operate smoothly.

There have been more retirements since the trust was created compared to last year, but to suggest the jail is losing an incredible number of long-time employees is also not supported by the data.

On a month-to-month basis in 2018, the average percentage of employees who had worked at the jail longer than three years and then left was actually higher than in 2019.

And these numbers fluctuated greatly throughout both years, not creating a clear pattern that could be used to definitely blame the formation of the trust.

“If what you’re saying is true, then I’m being misled by a lot of people,” Taylor said when The Oklahoman told him of the findings.

The exaggerated crisis has added to confusion and anxiety over the jail transition, but County Commissioner Carrie Blumert said she understands why it happened.

“I think (the sheriff’s office) was trying to communicate to the public and the media, but they were facing some uncertainty and saw employees walking out the door,” Blumert said. “I don’t think they were intentionally trying to mislead anyone. But I had heard from other sources that the numbers weren’t as bad as they were making it sound.”

But even though the nature of this particular problem may have been overstated, there are still problems.

The Frontier reported this summer that turnover at the county jail has been a continuous issue due to low pay, a faulty facility and dangerous work.

On Thursday, Taylor plans to ask the county to give a raise to jail employees. Taylor has frequently pointed out that wages for jail employees are below what other large counties offer.

The hope is that, regardless of the exact numbers or motivations surrounding turnover, the raise will boost morale and keep staffing levels stable until the trust takes over next year.

“The jail has historically been understaffed, and right now, it is still understaffed,” Blumert said. “But I think when the new administrator gets in there, he can work with his staff and start to recruit more people.”

Related Photos
<strong>The Oklahoma County Jail, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman]</strong>

The Oklahoma County Jail, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - The Oklahoma County Jail, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman] " title=" The Oklahoma County Jail, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> The Oklahoma County Jail, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - [Todd Pendleton/The Oklahoman] " title=" [Todd Pendleton/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> [Todd Pendleton/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Kayla Branch

Kayla Branch covers county government and poverty for The Oklahoman. Branch is a native Oklahoman and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She joined The Oklahoman staff in April 2019. Read more ›