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Florida State Hospital employees press legislators for hazard pay, risk benefits

Asserting the risks their jobs entail, Florida State Hospital and Sunland employees traveled to Tallahassee this past week to lobby state legislators for hazard pay and additional protections as provided for in a proposed bill currently being mulled over in the state house of representatives.

If passed, House Bill 803 would reclassify 1,800 workers at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, Marianna’s Sunland Development Disabilities Center and other mental health facilities around the state as “special-risk” in the Florida retirement system. The special classification would provide for greater pay and early retirement benefits for employees who spend at least 65 percent of their workday in direct contact with mental health patients and so-called “criminally insane” inmates.

According the Florida chapter of lobbying group American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), passage of such protections are long overdue.

“For two decades, the dedicated employees at Florida’s state mental hospitals have tried to convey to lawmakers the perilous nature of the work they do day in and day out. These tireless public servants work directly with individuals found not guilty by reason of insanity or who have been found to be a danger to themselves or to others,” the group said in a statement. “Caring for and providing a safe environment for these patients is highly demanding, dangerous, and physically exhausting work. This is evidenced by the multiple incidents of assault these workers have been subjected to through the years on the job. From being kicked, punched, and bitten, to being spat and urinated upon, these workers have dealt with it all – and all of it with a high degree of patience and professionalism.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, State Representative Vance Aloupis, echoed the group’s sentiments, saying House Bill 803 and the protections it provides has been “a long time coming.”

“It’s important to understand the serious circumstances these individuals work under,” State Representative Aloupis said. “They put themselves in danger every day just by going to work. The stories are horrendous. Workers have been stabbed with scissors or beaten close to death.”

During a first reading this past Monday, State Representative Aloupis, who sponsored the bill along with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., urged members of the Florida House Subcommittee on Oversight, Transparency and Public Management to pass House Bill 803 during the 2019 legislative session, asserting “it’s the right thing to do.”

Employees of Florida State Hospital, Sunland, as well as other state facilities that treat patients for the criminal justice system – namely, Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny and  North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville – held up signs in the halls of the state capitol this past Monday.

“Our job is to treat the residents with dignity and respect,” Chattahoochee mental health worker Jasper Laster told reporters attending the subcommittee hearing Monday. “All we want is the same thing.”

The bill is expected to come back to the committee later in the session for a vote, after the Florida Chapter of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees completes a study at state mental health facilities.

Currently, only law enforcement, firefighters, and employees at correctional facilities are classified as “special risk.”

By Brian Dekle