The Lead

Pennsylvania’s protections for public-sector workers are more than 60 years old. Unions are pushing for an update

By: - September 11, 2019 4:21 pm

Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, a union representing thousands of state human services workers, speaks at a press conference on September 11, 2019. The conference was to push for legislative action on a bill to expand state workplace protections for public sector employees. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The way David Gash sees it, a new push in Harrisburg to pass increased workplace protections for public workers is just part of a long-running battle.

It’s all about safety. 

“This is the core reason the labor movement got started in the first place,” Gash, president of the AFL-CIO’s Harrisburg Region Central Labor Council, said at an event in the state capital Wednesday.

Gash, surrounded by elected officials from both parties as well as a dozen Harrisburg-area union members, is pushing for the passage of legislation sponsored by Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, to ensure better enforcement of safety protections in public-sector workplaces like school districts and transit authorities.

Union leaders and lawmakers have dubbed it “Jake’s Law” for Jake Schwab, an Erie transit mechanic and union member who died on the job in November 2014. 

He was killed at an Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority garage when a bus airbag he was working on exploded.

The bill would give the state Department of Labor & Industry the ability to inspect, enforce, and penalize public employers for not following federal and state safety regulations.

Pennsylvania’s public workers don’t have workplace safety protections. This bill would change that

A five-person board, appointed by the governor, could create new rules, as well as review and decide on complaints or issue fines to public employers. The bill would also mandate reporting of workplace injuries.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s public-sector workers are covered by a law written in the 1950s. 

While the law provides a long list of workplace safety requirements, a state L&I official, testifying at a 2017 House committee hearing, described the law as mostly reactive with limited reporting and enforcement requirements.

Wednesday’s Harrisburg press conference is part of a statewide push by Pennsylvania organized labor to add the bill to the General Assembly’s fall agenda. Lawmakers come back to Harrisburg next week. 

The unions participating in the effort include local chapters of Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.


In testimony during that same 2017 hearing on a previous version of the bill, county and municipal governments, public authorities, and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association all opposed the proposal.

The groups collectively described the bill’s measures as burdensome and questioned if data backed the need for more regulation.

“It is not possible to craft a law to stop what are essentially infrequent occurrences,” Ronald Grutza, chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said in his 2017 testimony.

At the moment, there is no requirement for public employers to report workplace injuries or deaths to the state government. In the private sector, employers are required to report such incidents to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, established in 1970.

Local government groups also call the request a potentially expensive unfunded Harrisburg mandate.

The state Department of Labor & Industry expects it would need an additional $6.5 million per year to enforce the law. 

According to OSHA, 22 states already have state-level labor safety codes that cover both public and private employees, while another six have state codes to protect just public employees.

Mickey Sgro, director of AFSCME Council 83, which represents southwestern Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star that his union has experienced two on-the-job deaths in the last two years.

In the first instance, PennDOT employee Robert Gensimore was struck by a driver while setting flares on I-99 during a snowstorm in February 2018. The driver is currently on trial for vehicular homicide.

That August, Bryan Chamberlain, another PennDOT worker, died after a piece of equipment malfunctioned and went down an embankment, trapping Chamberlain between the machine and a tree.

The deaths, as well as other workplace injuries, have shaken Sgro. If there were better worker protections, he feels that the machine Chamberlain was on “would have never seen the road.”

But what particularly incenses Sgro is the argument that the lack of information on workplace safety for public-sector workers means the bill shouldn’t be passed.

“They want data?” Sgro said. “Then let them have OSHA and they will get all the data they want.”

Local government officials, a bulwark of opposition, might be forced to rethink their tone, Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, a Democrat, said.

He said he plans to bring up Jake’s Law during a statewide commissioners meeting later this month, where he’ll try to build a collective voice of local government support for the proposal.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has historically opposed the bill.

“I would be very clear that the lives of our employees are much more valuable than any dollar you can present,” Hartwick said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.