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October 03, 2005

Doing Society's Dirty (and Dangerous) Work

Reprinted From Confined Space

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about workers who get killed in trench collapses, falls off buildings and chemical plant explosions.

Lost in the "drama" of these fatalities are the hazards that Public employees do some of the most unpleasant, but necessary jobs that the citizens of this country demand to live the life they've become accustomed to. And they face hazards that most of us don't want to think about.

And for all that they get lousy pay.

Take social workers, for example:

Social work can be a risky business.

In February, an angry mother in Woburn slammed a door into a social worker's face during a home visit. In April, a Fitchburg woman threw a potted plant at a social worker's head. In July, a social worker in Lowell was almost run down by a pickup driven by a disgruntled former client.

And overshadowing all of these recent reports is the slaying of Linda Silva, a Department of Social Services worker who was murdered in 1996 by a father who had lost custody of his children.

State social workers say these examples show the potential dangers they face every day, and because of those hazards, they deserve better retirement benefits.

SEIU Local 509 which represents Department of Social Services workers in Massachusetts is pushing for a bill that put them into a higher-paying category of the state retirement system along with employees that include mental health hospital attendants, county elevator maintenance men, municipal electricians, juvenile probation officers, some correction officers, and court officers. The change would allow them to retire a few years earlier and receive a higher pension.

Summer Twyman was the social worker who had a door slammed on her face in February. She was out of work for months. Her injuries included a concussion and nerve damage. While she was out of work, she used up her sick time and received less pay. She also had to cover some medical expenses.

Twyman, 24, returned to her job at the DSS office in Cambridge in June, while following up with physicians and her neurologist.

"I've been out to many homes with police officers during removals. It's because of those situations [police and probation officers] get those benefits . . . we are in those same homes," she said.

"We should get equal benefits," Twyman said.

Meanwhile, let's look at probation officers in Los Angeles who staged a sick-out to protest dangerous working conditions, inadequate staffing and compensation that falls short of what other counties pay.
Some at the demonstration said they had been attacked while transporting repeat juvenile offenders. Others said they had been shot at — while armed only with pepper spray and a cellphone — while trying to visit probationers.

"They want us to go out and do proactive probation work, but they don't want to compensate us properly for the risks we're taking," said Aldin Tatley, who works with a unit of armed probation officers that checks on violent gang members in Lancaster, Palmdale and Altadena. "I have two kids. I want to go home at night."

AFSCME Local 685, which represents 400 Los Angeles County probation officers, has been negotiating a new contract with the county for three years. Almost 1000 called in sick Tuesday and 500 showed up for a rally to demand that the county return to the bargaining table.

Aside from poorly paying dangerous jobs, you may have noticed one advantage these workers have that most American workers don't have: unions. That means the ability to lobby for legislation, to stage collective work actions and stage demonstrations that build attention and support for their issues.

It's a lesson that more workers in this country should be paying attention to.

Posted by Jordan Barab at October 3, 2005 12:06 AM