In recent years, the safety of public employees in the workplace has become a pressing concern. From the increase in mass violence to the challenges posed by political unrest and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local employees, including healthcare workers, educators, social workers, and other essential personnel, face unprecedented challenges due to shortages in the public workforce. These shortages have put public workers at risk by creating an unsafe workplace and have even caused employees to stress and fear returning to work. 

During the pandemic, many public health officials faced severe harassment and threats to their safety. According to a National League of Cities report, eighty-one percent of public officials surveyed had experienced harassment, threats, and violence. The pandemic also increased demand for public services, putting strain on an already stretched workforce. As NPPC recently wrote, public worker shortages are a growing concern, with many state and local government agencies struggling to fill critical positions. Many public employees work longer hours, have fewer resources, and face an increased risk of unsafe situations. 

“Across the country, chronic understaffing in correctional facilities, youth detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, and in social services contributes to high turnover among qualified staff and increases the likelihood that violent incidents will occur,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

In his op-ed for Anchorage Daily News, 23-year police veteran Patrick Messmer details the consequences staffing shortages in Alaska have had on his ability to perform his job safely.  ”According to an FBI study in 2020, Alaska has the highest rate of assaults on police officers–more than five times the national average–due to an increasingly strained social fabric and the fact we are all short-staffed and often must send officers out to dangerous calls alone,” he stated.  “I was part of that statistic—in 2020, I had a gun put to my head during an arrest because we didn’t have the proper staffing ratios to ensure backup,” he said. 

As we recognize National Safety Month, it’s an opportune time also to acknowledge how staffing shortages may expose public servants to even more risks on the job. When there aren’t enough workers to handle the workload, government employees are often forced to work longer hours and take on additional responsibilities. This can lead to fatigue, burnout, and an increased risk of injury or illness. Furthermore, understaffing can also lead to a lack of employee training and support. New employees may not receive the assistance they need to perform their jobs safely and effectively, opening the door for mistakes, accidents, and other issues that can put employees and the public at risk.

Declining numbers in the public workforce pose a serious concern that must be addressed to create a safe and effective workplace for our public employees. This requires a concerted effort from government agencies, policymakers, and the public to invest in public services by advocating and providing adequate resources and support for public workers and prioritizing the health and safety of those putting their lives at risk every day. One way to support public employees is by providing them with the guaranteed lifetime income of a secure pension after their time in service has ended. Pensions also are one small way we can support public employees who often sacrifice their bodies, and thus their future earning potential, on behalf of all of us. Pensions won’t make their jobs any safer but will ensure they have a safety net to depend on in retirement. 

Hear from Leighton Vanderburgh, a 19-year Connecticut Department of Corrections employee and AFSME member, about how the promise of a pension has impacted his career. Share his story today!