Public Workers Cite Job Dangers In Push For Retirement Changes

Massachusetts State House

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BOSTON (State House News Service) - From social workers, to crime scene scientists, to harbormasters, diverse groups of public employees came before a legislative committee Tuesday to say their current retirement benefits don't reflect the realities of their daily jobs.

Investigators with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission "are in danger every day," Rep. Paul Donato told the Public Service Committee, "when they go to various bars, taverns, restaurants, liquor stores, and everywhere else to make sure that the laws are being adhered to."

The team of 15 or 17 investigators is armed only with Mace spray, and when the patrons at those establishments sometimes "get a little rowdy" it puts the ABCC personnel in a "very, very precarious position."

Donato's bill (H 2507) would put the ABCC investigators in Group 4 of the state's retirement benefit categories -- the same group with most of the state's law enforcement personnel.

The group classifications influence retirement benefits, including eligibility dates.

Retirement Group 1 includes clerical and technical workers, and Jessica Leger, a forensic scientist at the State Police crime lab, feels her job "just doesn't fit" there alongside administrative and desk jobs.

Leger appealed to lawmakers to move her, and her forensic scientist colleagues, into Group 2 (H 2674) representing what she said is daily work at crime scenes and jails that exposes them to physically and mentally dangerous situations.

"I've sat inside of interview rooms, I've sat inside of jail cells, with hardened criminals. And I've thought more than once about the fact that I'm a petite 5-foot-tall woman, and that at any moment, a suspect I'm examining could attack me," Leger said. She added that she does not watch horror films because "I've really, actually seen, in person, up-close true bloodbaths that Hollywood directors could only wish that they could recreate."

When compliance officers from the Department of Fire Services go out to the scenes of fatal fires, they're working "side by side" with state and local investigators who are all classed in Group 3 or Group 4 for their retirement benefits, said Matthew Murray, supervisor of the DFS Compliance and Enforcement Unit.

The five-person unit also responds to carbon monoxide poisonings, Hazmat incidents, explosives incidents, "and other dangerous scenes," he said. That exposes them to off-gassing as they sift through debris -- carcinogens and other toxins that "stay with us for long periods of time."

Murray and his colleague Jordan Greene-Williams asked the committee to support reclassifying their small group for Group 4 benefits (H 2478).

"The fact that we work in parity with the local communities that we serve ... and we don't have the same protections afforded to us, it's absurd in my eyes. It's not fair," Greene-Williams said.

Salem Harbormaster Bill McCue had a similar argument for why harbormasters should move up to Group 2 retirement status (H 2519).

His autonomous agency reports directly to the city's police chief, he said, and it's the harbormaster who dispatches the initial law enforcement response to areas like harbor islands where there are residents, a day camp, and recreation areas. He said he and his assistants receive law enforcement training and Coast Guard training.

"Harbormasters are most often the first agency on scene to a maritime incident. The work requires a diverse knowledge and skill set, and can be stressful as well as physically demanding. Other first responders such as police and fire are enrolled in Group 4. Again, harbormasters, appearing to do much of the same duties, are still in Group 1."

Rep. Christopher Flanagan, the bill's sponsor, said that he saw firsthand as a Dennis Select Board member how harbormasters coordinate emergency responses and said "their work is worthy of being placed into Group 2."

Then there's the clinical social workers at the Department of Mental Health, like Brenda Grant, who said she serves people "who are journeying through the darkest moments in their lives."

"One hundred percent of the people I work with have some sort of trauma. When I am scratched or hit at work, these wounds heal within days or weeks. But we carry our patients' darkest stories with us. Healing from those stories takes time and is done in solitude and silence," Grant said.

Jean Calvert McClure, president of SEIU Local 509's DMH chapter, reported being stuck in a house with a woman "experiencing a psychotic break" during a blizzard. The woman was having auditory hallucinations "instructing her to have a human sacrifice."

DMH clinical social workers told the committee that they want to move up to Group 2 (H 2497), and Grant compared their work to probation officers, court officers, and some correctional officers.

The Public Service Committee's chairs, Rep. Kenneth Gordon and Sen. Michael Brady, repeatedly brought up their request for bill proponents to request a letter from PERAC (the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission) estimating the cost and extent of each proposed reclassification.

Amid the current workforce crunch, bolstered retirement benefits were pitched not just as a way to reward hard or dangerous work, but also as a way to attract and retain good workers.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian pitched the committee on a bill (H 2673) that would move nurses and health care staff at county correctional facilities into Group 4.

"I believe it's truly a matter of equity and fairness to some of the hardest workers, and those most exposed to potentially dangerous situations, in our facility," Koutoujian said.

But the former representative was also bearing in mind that there's a "level of burnout among medical professionals" heading out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he especially feels at the sheriff's office "where we cannot compete with per diem pay at local hospitals."

Moving the correctional nurses to Group 4 would "help us offer a benefit unique in this space, help us recruit and retain quality nurses, and help us maintain the high standard of care," the Waltham Democrat said.

Co-chair Gordon asked if the bill would cover nurses working in both physical and mental health capacities. Koutoujian said the definition was intentionally "a little open-ended" so sponsors could work with the committee on crafting a definition.

"It concerns me. I wouldn't want to leave anyone behind," Gordon said.

Written By Sam Doran/SHNS

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