The Minnesota Department of Corrections has laid off 48 employees to meet “unforeseen budget shortfalls” related to the corona­virus pandemic, officials said.

In an e-mail to state legislators last week, a senior staffer explained that compounding factors such as contractual salary increases, ballooning overtime for officers and loss of revenue from the agency’s industrial MINNCOR program were to blame for a $4.2 million deficit. Balancing the budget would require a reduction in staffing.

“[The] DOC set aside 1.5% of all work unit budgets a year ago to help prepare for the anticipated salary increases,” Safia Khan, director of government relations, wrote ahead of the special session. “But COVID-19 was an unexpected shock to the global economy, and the DOC is experiencing the fallout.”

She urged lawmakers to keep their “budgetary needs and deficiencies in mind” when considering funding requests. But a legislative deal on spending and borrowing collapsed Tuesday, sinking the DOC’s hopes for state aid in the form of a nearly $13 million supplemental budget request.

Corrections officials began notifying workers from a range of departments, including senior staff, that their jobs had been terminated even before gridlock divided the Capitol. Over the past two weeks, employees ranging from central office education to inmate case managers to health services were let go.

The only position left fully intact was that of correctional officers — whose roles are critical to safety and security inside the state’s 11 prisons — who are already shorthanded.

With roughly 4,300 permanent workers, the agency represents the third-largest employer in the state. Personnel makes up 64% of the department’s $610 million budget.

“In order to address structural problems and not deplete cash reserves, we had to make some cuts,” Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said an interview. “The longer we wait to act on staffing, the deeper the cuts are likely to be.”

Although Schnell is still exploring other cost-saving measures with Gov. Tim Walz’s office and the Department of Management and Budget, he expressed concern about the implications of further reductions. Additional trims would likely threaten more jobs.

As union members, most employees have 21 days to exercise “bumping rights” — meaning that they can shift within their current job classification or reclaim previous positions at the agency now held by people with less seniority. It’s not immediately clear how many of those laid off will retain employment at the DOC once that process is complete.

The cuts come amid the COVID-19 crisis that has consumed operations for months inside state facilities.

Since the outbreak began, nearly 400 prisoners have tested positive for the respiratory disease and two have died. At least 71 employees also fell ill from the virus, but the majority of them have since returned to duty.

The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE), the labor union representing 19 of the pink-slipped workers, had lobbied for DOC deficiency funds to help pay down overtime costs related to the correctional officer staffing shortage and salary increases needed to bolster recruitment and retention.

On Tuesday, MAPE leaders announced their disappointment in the Legislature’s failure to fulfill the request.

“I recently met with two clients who are COVID-19 positive. We are being asked to endanger our lives and at the same time our jobs are being cut,” said Seal Dwyer, a clinical program therapist at St. Cloud prison and President of Local 1702. “We need action from our elected leaders.”

Others lamented that layoffs would only compound problems outlined in a recent Office of the Legislative Auditor report on security in the state’s prison system. The scathing assessment found that persistent staffing shortages, a glut of overtime hours and outdated infrastructure contributed to a dangerous environment for inmates and employees alike.

“We have to address what was found in the report,” Jessica Raptis, a DOC senior program administrator, said in a statement. “Working conditions are not safe and reducing staffing will only make things worse.”