public employees

What do Moises Dominguez, Cameron Leeds and Charlie McLaughlin have in common?

All of them are public employees listed in the most recent “Weekly Toll” list of workers killed in the workplace last week.*

But the similarities stop there.  An full investigation will be conducted on the death of Dominguez, who worked for the city of Durango New Mexico’s solid waste, trash and recycling division. And if violations of OSHA standards are identified, the city will be cited.

Nothing similar is likely to happen for Leeds or McLaughlin, however, because unlike Dominguez, they work in states where public employees have no legal right to work in a safe workplace. Missouri and Oklahoma are two of 24 states in this country where there is no OSHA coverage for public employees.

Leed’s truck was hit by a train in Liberty, Missouri when he attempted to cross a double set of train tracks, and McLaughlin was killed in Mangum City, Oklahoma while loading a roll-off dumpster onto a hauler and chain-link debris in the dumpster became entangled in a high voltage power line, electrocuting him.

Their deaths will receive no thorough investigation, and certainly no citations — no further media coverage, no penalties to deter further neglect of OSHA standards or other safe practices that can save lives, and no lessons learned.

Yes, you read that right. Almost 50 years after the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, eight million public employees in this country still do not have the right to a safe workplace.  Doesn’t matter if they work with heavy equipment on highways, or in mental health institutions or in prisons or in wastewater treatment plants. Doesn’t matter if they get injured, sick or die.

If you’re a public employee who happens to work in one of those states, you’re just out of luck. You’re a second class citizen without the basic human right to come home healthy and alive at the end of the work day.  And to add insult to injury, the Supreme Court now says that you don’t even have the same right to organize a union as private sector workers have.

Why are we still living (and dying) with this obvious miscarriage of justice?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed in 1970, did not cover public employees.  But there were two options for public employee protections. First, if a state chose to run its own program (an OSHA State Plan program), the law requires the state to cover public employees. Twenty-one states and Puerto Rico do that.

In the other 24 states, public employees remain second class citizens — public servants like are apparently expected to give their lives for their city.

What really makes me mad is that the law also gave states the option to adopt an OSHA “Public Employee-only” state plan that would be half funded by federal OSHA (while the feds continue to cover private sector employees), but only 5 states have chosen to do so over the past 4 decades: Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Maine, as well as the Virgin Islands.

In the other 24 states, public employees remain second class citizens — public servants like are apparently expected to give their lives for their city.

And it’s not because public employment is safer:

As you can see from the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, public employees — both local and state government employees —  are more than 50% more likely to be injured on the job than private sector employees.

Almost 500 government employees died in the workplace in 2016, “with a 9-percent decrease in federal employee fatalities that was more than offset by increases in state and local government fatalities, up 20 percent and 13 percent, respectively,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public employees are 47% more likely to be injured on the job than private sector employees, and the injury and illness rate for nurses in state facilities in 13.7 per 100,000 compared with 3.2 for the average private sector worker.

Public employees are 47% more likely to be injured on the job than private sector employees

Workplace violence events disproportionately occur among public employees.  752,600 state and local government workers nationwide were injured or made sick in 2015, for a total of nearly 3.7 million reported work-related injuries and illnesses.The incidence rate of injuries caused by workplace violence was more than 675% higher for state government workers (31.2 per 10,000 workers) than the rate for private industry workers (4.0). The incidence rate of violence for local government workers (23.0 per 10,000 workers) was 475% higher than for private industry workers.

So what is to be done?

Congress has had the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) in front of them for over fifteen years. PAWA contains language that would require coverage of all public employees in the country.  Meanwhile, the other 24 states that don’t cover public employees could adopt laws and public employee OSHA programs.

Massachusetts is the most recent state to start moving in that direction.  Earlier this year, H.B. 3952 was passed by the legislature and signed into law. The law states that “Public employers shall provide public employees at least the level of protection provided under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 including standards and provisions of the general duty clause” and also establishes an Advisory Board that will include “five members of public employee unions and a representative from a community-based health and safety advocacy organization.”

This isn’t an OSHA approved state plan, and questions remain as to how the program will be funded and enforced, but unions and COSH groups in Massachusetts are determined to make it work and move toward full and effective protection for the state’s public employees.


*In addition to two police officers who were shot to death, and three firefighters who died of job-related cancer or other causes.



2 thoughts on “Public Employees at Risk: America’s Second-Class Citizens”
  1. Tying the lack of OSHA coverage in 24 states for public employees to the Supreme Court decision baring those same employees from forming a Union really shines a light on these at risk workers. There is potentially no one there to protect them at all. It is really hard to understand how these states have not passed laws in the last 50 years to give their public employees the same right to a safe workplace as private employees.

  2. Jordan your passion for the plight of public employees is why I was so grateful to work for you and with you. Great post

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