Public Employees: Too Late to be Concerned After a Death

The Massachusetts Senate has voted to expand the death benefit for public employees who die on the job to $300,000. The amendments was submitted in honor of Longmeadow Department of Public Works foreman Warren P. Cowles who was killed earlier this year during Winter storm Stella.

Good news? So why does this make me mad?

Because generally I’d rather see a death prevented, than compensation for a lost loved one when it’s too late.And the best way to do that is to pass a law giving all public employees in Massachusetts the right to a safe workplace.

“A life is a life, and if a public worker dies in the line of duty, their families should be eligible for the same benefit,” [Sen. Eric P.] Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said in a statement. “This amendment is about equity and fairness to all those who do the public’s work and put their own safety at risk to serve their communities.”

Now I don’t know Senator Lesser, he may be a good guy, and these are certainly nice sentiments. But the fact remains that more than 45 years after the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed providing a safe workplace to private sector employees, public employees still have no right to a safe workplace in over half of the states,  including Massachusetts.

If Massachusetts legislators really want to “provide equity and fairness to all those who do the public’s work and put their own safety at risk to serve their communities,” the least they can do is give them the same protections that private sector workers have.

A little background: The OSHAct exempts public employers (and therefor public employees) from coverage, despite the fact that they do work that is as dangerous or more dangerous than private sector workers: they work, get hurt and die in wastewater treatment plants, on the highways, in hospitals and mental health institutions, prisons and parks. They protect our public safety, rescue us from traffic accidents and save us from fires.

When a state runs its own OSHA program, as 21 states do, they are also required to cover public employees, and federal OSHA funds up to 50% of that program.  The law also allows states to set up their own “public employee-only” programs, where the state covers the public sector and the feds cover the private sector. Federal OSHA also provides 50% of the funding for those program. Only 5 states (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and Maine) have chosen to adopt public employee-only programs.

Note that Massachusetts is not one of those states. In Massachusetts and 23 other states, public employees are free to die in unprotected trenches and confined spaces, get exposed to toxic chemicals and killed in unsecured highway workzones — all without their employers fearing any fines or investigations.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MASSCOSH) and labor unions in Massachusetts have been pushing for years to pass legislation guaranteeing safe workplaces for public employees. They’ve had partial success. On March 24, 2015, a new state employee safety and health statute was enacted, extending federal safety and health standards to executive branch employees. But city and county employees still receive no protections.

If Massachusetts legislators really want to “provide equity and fairness to all those who do the public’s work and put their own safety at risk to serve their communities,” the least they can do is give them the same protections that private sector workers have.

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