But this one has an unfortunate twist. There will be no OSHA investigation. There will be no citation, no penalty. It will be chalked up to just a terrible accident. And move on.
There will be no OSHA investigation. There will be no citation, no penalty.
Why? Because this unidentified employee of the Plainville Department of Public Works, a public employee. And in Massachusetts and 23 other states in this country, public employees are second class citizens. These are the people that fix our roads, watch our criminals, deal with whatever we flush down the toilet, staff public hospitals and mental health institutions, fight fires, protect us from bad guys, teach our children, keep our parks together, and much, much more. In other words, they do the hard work that makes life n this country safe and enjoyable.
Yet their lives are apparently not worth as much as private sector employees.
Sound harsh? Maybe. But if public employees were as valued as private sector employees, wouldn’t public employees have the same right to a safe workplace that private sector employees have?
For those who don’t understand this strange, uniquely American, situation, here’s 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 federal 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, and only two — Illinois and Maine — in the past 15 years.
Legislation that would require public employee coverage nationwide are introduced into Congress every year, usually as part of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, this year introduced by Al Franken in the Senate and Joe Courtney in the House. The last significant effort was made in the early 1990’s when public employee coverage formed part of labor-sponsored OSHA Reform legislation. At that time, there was considerable support even among Republicans for correcting this clear injustice.
But the public employer organizations — the League of Cities, Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties — opposed OSHA coverage. The states and cities were already doing a fine job protecting their public employees they said, and anyway it would costs cities and counties too much. (How something they are already doing would cost too much money was never explained.)
I’ve been working to extend coverage to public employees since I started working at AFSCME 35 years ago. I wrote last month about public employee coverage in Massachusetts, and I wrote 12 years ago about public employee coverage in Massachusetts.
How long is it going to take for America to wake up and realize that public employees are people who deserve to come home to their families at the end of every day, just like everyone else?