RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina needs to spend millions to sharply raise pay for prison guards to more than a fast-food restaurant manager's salary and attract applicants to fill hundreds of vacant positions, a problem outside experts say contributed to the slayings of five workers in 2017.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina and legislative supporters said Wednesday higher pay is a top priority among several changes they want from lawmakers just starting their two-year session.

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The labor organization says North Carolina prison workers were paid an average of $37,000 in 2017, about 22 percent less than the national average.

Corrections workers say the low pay is a big reason 20 percent or more of the positions in some prisons are vacant, forcing remaining employees to work mandatory overtime.