The position of public servant has certainly been in the public eye the last several years. Often the last to feel the bitter effects of recession or cutbacks, they seem to scream the loudest when the pain, or perceived pain, finally reaches them – or threatens to reach them.
Just this week, in a story about Detroit's historic bankruptcy, the Wall Street Journal quoted a 25 year city street maintenance employee who was “concerned”, as he had planned on retiring with full benefits in October.
He is 50 years old.
Seriously. As a member of the private sector whose retirement strategy has involved investing all his money in debt, and who will likely die at his desk for lack of a better option: Cry me a friggin' river. This man, who has spent 25 years filling potholes in a city that has become one giant metaphorical street crater, will spend at least 27.5 years on full retirement if he just lives to average life expectancy. It's no wonder the city has $20 billion in unsecured debt, with almost half of that coming from unfunded pension liabilities. It is ridiculous.
We've seen similar trends and demands in workers' compensation. I understand some of them, as there have been moves to help traumatized first responders after horrific crimes, such as the Sandy Hook massacre. Other attempts, largely focused on emergency personnel, would greatly expand the scope and depth of what would be considered compensable in workers' comp. The fear, of course, is that municipalities and state governments will end up owning conditions that had nothing to do with the workers' job. This is not a pie in the sky fear. Just this morning there is news out of California of a policeman filing for “psychiatric injury” from an incident where he pepper-sprayed protesters (More on that in a future column).
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apparently shares this concern, as last week he vetoed SB 1778, a bill designed to give wider presumption of causation to a multitude of illnesses and injuries for public servants. The bill was written so that it “would have been presumed that public safety worker injuries, disabilities or deaths that “may be caused” by exposure to carcinogens or radioactive substances resulted from their work.” It also would have required workers' compensation eligibility presumptions for post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to communicable diseases. Christie said, as part of his veto message, that the bill's wording was so broad that it may expose state and local governments to liability for “disabilities not tethered to any work-related incident at all.”
I am inclined to agree. Talk about a Pandora 's Box – the phrase “may be caused”, when applied to a wide range of exposures and possible maladies could quickly add up to yet another unnecessary financial liability for the state. While private employers and employees benefit from the no fault presumptions inherent in workers' comp, the injuries and illnesses that occur for them still must have some relation to the job. The private sector does not get an automatic presumption of cause, and public servants should not receive yet another special benefit. They clearly should be protected from the dangers of their work, but are not due special privileges beyond that protection, merely because they serve the public interest.
After all, there are many dangerous jobs in the private sector, and frankly, any productive position “serves the public interest”. Just because the source of pay is from the well of taxpayer contributions should not entitle this group to special benefits they may not deserve.