Thursday, April 08, 2004

America's Most Mistreated Workers: Public Employees

Imagine opening your newspaper to the following headline

Government Takes Workplace Safety Rights Away From 8 Million Workers

We'd see angry denunciations in Congress and shocked editorials in newspapers across the nation. John Sweeney would hold a press conference condemning those who would sentence public employees to injury and death. Union members would take to the streets, fax machines and post offices.

But you won't see that headline. You won't see it because those rights weren't taken away; they were just never bestowed upon the public employees of this nation when the OSHAct was passed in 1970. Although states were given the right to cover their public employees in federally approved programs, with matching funding coming from the federal government, only 24 states have done so.

Public employees work in some of this nation's most dangerous workplaces: highways, prisons, hospitals, law enforcement, fire fighting, mental health institutions and wastewater treatment plants. 6,455 public employees died in the workplace from 1992 to 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They die in perfectly legal 15 foot-deep, unprotected trenches, in unmonitored confined spaces, on unsafe machinery and no one investigates their deaths, no one is fined and no one seems to care -- except for their families. Last week, the ex-wife of one Texas public employee killed on the job wrote me:
My name is Janet Chapa Morris. My ex-husband was killed on the job for Harris County Precinct One (Houston Texas) on 12/3/03.

I found a notice of his death posted on your site. I read your Who am I? Why am I here? section and have some comments/ questions for you.

I contacted OSHA shortly after Michael's death. The County makes a practice of "rigging" up the tractors (I believe the one that killed Michael was one of these) instead of maintaining them properly. I was told that because the County was a government entity, they were not required to report injuries or even deaths to OSHA.

Who do they report to? How can I make it known that the County regularly "works around" problem tractors? They force the men to work in very unsafe conditions, then when someone is hurt or killed, they all clam up in fear of loosing their own jobs.

I am not looking for money. Please do not think that my questions are designed to "assist" in some wrongful death case.

I have a 13 year old daughter who lost her father. She was his whole life, he prepared very well for her just in case something such as this happened. She is now financially set for life. It does not even come close to replacing her father and one of my best friends.

My wish, and the wish of my daughter is that NO OTHER family EVER has to share our horrible experience. We went to the site of the accident. We saw his blood and bits of his clothing scattered over a 30 foot area. I have his last words on my voice mail at work.....they were....." gears...." and that was it. I have his autopsy report in my desk, the damage done to him was horrific. He was dragged and crushed to death. The trauma he suffered was so great that I can't even begin to list the injuries.

Please write me back if you know a way for me to bring this to the attention of the proper authorities and/or the public.

Janet L. Chapa Morris

P. S. The County was kind enough to plant a tree in his honor at Barbara Jordan Park on 3/24/03. There is a lovely plaque on the tree. I'm sure my daughter will take great comfort from it. When she needs her father, she can go talk to an oak tree. Lousy trade-off.
I wrote her back and not knowing which, if any, agency in Texas cares about dead public employees, gave her the e-mail addresses of a number of reporters:
Janet: I'm so sorry for your loss. The death of any worker angers me, but I get especially angry and sickened when public employees die. As you may know, public employees are only covered by OSHA in about half the states. This is one of the least known, and most outrageous workplace facts about this country. The U.S. is the only "advanced" country where it is essentially perfect legal to kill public employees. And they aren't just conservative southern states like Texas. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts also don't cover their public employees.

I don't think most people even realize what kind of work many public employees do or that they aren't covered by OSHA in many states. My feeling that we need to create a big stink in the press. Then challenge state legislators who don't think public employees need protection to try doing their jobs: go down in an unprotected trench, go work in an understaffed mental health institution, go do your ex-husband's job on the equipment he had to work on.
Yesterday I got this response:

Please feel free to post my message on your website. I believe that the more people know about the horrible working conditions that the public employees have to endure, the louder the outcry will be to make changes.

Thank you so much for the articles and the email address for the reporter. I would like to contact her as I know of at least two others who have died while working for either the Harris County Precinct Roads and Bridges and/or the Harris County Flood Control District.

Michael and his co-workers were on the front line whenever there was a disaster here. When tropical storm Allison hit, Mike, like the other men he worked with, left their homes and went out in dump trucks rescuing people, the elderly, the young, the helpless, from their flooded homes. Incidentally, Mike's home was ruined in the flood while he worked to help others.

I don't believe that many people know just how much the public servants actually do to help those who cannot help themselves.

I, like you, would like to make the public aware of the danger that these men and women put themselves in to make our lives better.

Janet Chapa-Morris
In my 16 years at AFSCME, I don't think a day went by that I didn't talk to a reporter, state or federal legislator, AFSCME members or leaders or anyone else who would listen about the injustice being done to this nation's public employees. When I started at AFSCME, New York was about to become the 23rd state to cover public employees. When I left 16 years later, not one additional state had adopted a federally approved program. (Since then, the state of New Jersey has adopted a federally approved public employee OSHA program.)

In the early 1990's, the labor movement and Democrats attempted to revise the OSHAct. One of the revisions was to provide coverage for all public employees. The League of Cities, Conference of Mayors and Association of State Legislators opposed coverage: It would cost too much, it was an "unfunded mandate," and "we don't need it because we take good care of our public servants employees."

That legislation never went anywhere -- even when the Democrats controlled all three branches of government (only 12 years ago). Since then, there has been no serious activity in Congress or in any of the states, aside from New Jersey.

Some of these states have non-federally-approved OSHA programs. The problem is that, unlike the federally approved programs, these don't have to be adequately funded or maintain standards and enforcement "at least as effective as" the federal program. In addition, they can follow the path of Florida Governor Jeb Bush who abolished Florida's public employee OSHA program in June 2000. (Apparently he's a Republican that hates government so much that he thinks public employees deserve to die.)

What are the states where it's legal to kill public employees?
Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin

Last December, I wrote a letter to Florida Senator Bob Graham after one of his famous "workdays" when he does the job of an "average" worker. This time, he spent the day in a public workplace. I suggested that on his next workday, he mount a campaign for public employee OSHA coverage and kick it off by

going down in a 12 foot deep trench that is not shored or sloped. Climb down into a manhole or other confined space that has not been monitored for hazardous chemicals or oxygen deficiency. Go work on a locked, understaffed, overcrowded mental health ward or maybe in a high security prison. Go drive around in some old city vehicles with defective brakes. Maybe you could bring a few Florida state legislators and Governor Bush with you.

Assuming you live through the experience and that you think that this nation's public employees don't deserve to work and die under such conditions, please consider spending whatever time you have left in the public eye fighting for OSHA protections for public employees. They do the jobs that this country demand to make life safe and enjoyable. Safe workplaces are the least they deserve.
So what is to be done to save more children from losing their fathers and mothers, to keep them from being treated as second class citizens of this country? I have two ideas.

First, every time you read about a public employee death in a state without coverage, talk to the reporter and write a letter to the editor. In the recent past, good reporters like David Barstow at the New York Times, or Justin Pritchard at AP or Andrew Schneider and Sara Shipley at the St. Louis Post Dispatch seem to be the only forces in this society that can effect change in this society.

The "easy" solution is to elect more labor-friendly Democrats, with emphasis on the "labor-friendly." We're in an election year now and I don't think any election, national or local, will turn on the issue of public employee OSHA coverage. Nevertheless, as you in the states that have no coverage talk to the candidates, ask them if they're even aware that public employees don't have a right to a safe workplace. And ask them to support legislation providing coverage. It may be a while before we retake the federal and more state governments, but it's never too late to start laying the groundwork.

It's the least we can do for Michael Chapa's daughter.