When I walked into my new job at AFSCME on November 1, 1982, I was immediately given the workplace safety and health portfolio for the giant public-sector union. My main qualification? I knew what OSHA was. I admit, however, that when I sat down at my new desk that morning, I had no idea that OSHA didn’t cover public employees in most states. Why would public employees, who do many of the same jobs that private sector workers do not have the right to a safe workplace? Today, almost 40 years later, I have no answer to that question.
There are 21 full state plan states which enforce the health and safety protections in their state and are also required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHAct) to cover their public employees. The OSHAct also gave states the option to develop a “public employee only” plan where the state enforces health and safety for public sector employees, and federal OSHA continues to cover the private sector. Federal OSHA funds at least 50% of state OSHA programs.
When, I started at AFSCME in 1982, two states — Connecticut and New Jersey — had public employee OSHA plans. But today, almost 40 years later, a grand total of five states have public employee only plans — only New York, Illinois and Maine have been added to the list. 24 states still do not cover public employees.*
One of those states that leave public employees out is Texas. And earlier this month, Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department employee Jorge Gomez-Guzman, age 28, was electrocuted while working on a streetlight. The city of Forth Worth said that “His death is under investigation.”
Who will be investigating the causes of his death? Not OSHA. Because public employees like Gomez-Guzman are not covered by OSHA. What will the “investigation” show? Well, hard to predict, but my experience over 40 years indicates that when an employer investigates the death of one of its own employees, the cause is almost always “worker error” or a “freak accident.” Basically carelessness. “Terrible tragedy, but what are you going to do? People make mistakes. So sorry. Let’s move on.”
Will there be any investigation into root causes? Maybe equipment maintenance issues, lack of training, short staffing, inadequate procedures, short deadlines, budget cuts? And investigation into any OSHA standards that had been violated? Probably not, because blaming any of those causes could raise uncomfortable questions that would piss off a lot of people. So no real investigation, no citations, no penalties and no lessons learned.
That’s life — and death — for 8 million public employees in this country, 51 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Second class citizens with no right to a safe workplace. And in case you’re inclined to just blame backward red states, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other blue states are among those who have decided that public employees shouldn’t have the same rights as private sector employees. (In addition, most states also deny public employees full collective bargaining rights.)
Congress can remedy this problem by passing the Protecting America’s Workers Act.
The media can help. I’m pretty sure that only a handful of reporters in those states know that public employees have no right to come home safe at the end of the workday. And of course the Governors and legislators in each of the 24 states that don’t cover public employees can fix the problem. Why aren’t they?
* The 24 states that do not cover public employees are: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin