My Turn: It’s time to give state workers the protections and benefits they deserve

For the Monitor
Published: 10/2/2020 6:10:18 AM
Modified: 10/2/2020 6:10:08 AM

From the first day of the coronavirus crisis, our state employees have stepped up for the safety and well-being of New Hampshire. They have taken our emergency calls, provided support, and kept our state running, oftentimes at personal risk to themselves and their families.

Every day, we hear how their efforts have helped us all navigate these unprecedented times. In the House and Senate, we took action that goes beyond words of thanks and passed legislation, House Bills 1166 and 1494, that protects their health, their families, and their right to collective bargaining. Unfortunately, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed both pieces of legislation, and on Sept. 16, House Republicans upheld the vetoes.

HB 1166 was about getting people back to work – safely. Understanding the challenges that our small businesses are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, HB 1166 sought to provide the necessary PPE to safely conduct business as well as protect both employees and customers through the requirement of reasonable sanitary and hygienic conditions related to COVID-19. To maintain the long-term protection of our state, HB 1166 waived cost-sharing for testing and treatment for COVID-19.

HB 1494 was a package of policies aimed at protecting Granite State workers that received bipartisan support in both the Senate and House. Part of that package established a state death benefit for a municipal or state public works employee killed in the line of duty, which passed the Senate by a vote of 23-1. We cannot ignore the fact that now, more than ever, our state employees have been put in danger. The possibility of exposure to the coronavirus has not gone away and across the country we are seeing record spikes in infection. Taking this step toward ensuring death benefits for the families of our police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, rescue squad members, and public works employees is a necessity as we continue to face the dangers ahead.

Additionally, HB 1494 as amended incorporated SB 448, to restore a statute that was enacted in 2007 and repealed in 2011to allow the Public Employee Labor Relations Board to certify an employee organization for the purposes of collective bargaining if it has received a written majority authorization. The language created a simplified pathway for employees seeking union membership. This would have given employees the opportunity to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions without fear of outside influence or unnecessary friction between employers and employees. In short, it gave employees more freedom of choice.

SB 417 aimed to fix problems created by outdated statutes. In current law, if an impasse happens during negotiations, even if it involves one bargaining unit, then all negotiations must stop. At the time that this language was enacted, New Hampshire had only one collective bargaining unit. Currently, there are nine. The language incorporated in HB 1494 allowed other bargaining units to continue their negotiations, even if others have reached an impasse.

We continued to put the long-term health and safety of our firefighters at the forefront by repealing the length of time the presumption of heart or lung disease is occupationally related for firefighters. Current restrictions limit claims to one month after a call, volunteer, or permanent firefighter reaches their 65th birthday. For many, long-term complications like heart and lung disease can be lifelong problems. By repealing the restrictions, our firefighters, who have dedicated their careers to the service of the state, could have continued their current claims as well as open the possibility for new claims. The original bill, HB 1113, unanimously passed the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee and passed the House of Representatives on a voice vote.

Finally, HB 1494 took action to ensure the long-term health and safety of our public employees by establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Advisory Board, and requiring public employers to provide employees with at least the level of protection provided under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. With rapidly changing public health guidelines, oversight will be needed to ensure the welfare of our public employees. This includes evaluating injury and illness data, recommending training and implementation of safety and health measures, monitoring the effectiveness of safety and health programs, and determining where additional resources are needed to protect the safety and health of public employees.

Time and time again, our state employees have risen to the occasion. It is long past time that we thank them with more than words and temporary benefits. In the next Legislative session, I will continue to fight to put long-term benefits in place including health and safety standards, a state death benefit, clarified workers’ compensation, and support for our unions, to show our public employees that their work is crucial and valued by the state.

(Kevin Cavanaugh of Manchester represents District 16 in the New Hampshire Senate.)


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