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Have You Hugged a State Employee Today?

Unless you are a state employee in one of 19 states that officially observe the day, you may not be aware that today, May 7, is “State Employee Recognition Day.” (I just learned about the event myself.). It comes at a good time, as state legislatures nationwide are forced to address record state deficits, and employees are forced to bear the brunt of their states’ economic difficulties by facing massive layoffs and cutbacks, as well as increased workloads in many cases, as more private citizens in need turn to their states for relief.

The annual event, sponsored since 2001 by the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE), is part of Public Service Recognition Week, which runs May 5-11 (so it’s not too late to celebrate). Public Service Recognition Week is, according to the organizers, “a time set aside each year to honor the men and women who serve America as federal, state and local government employees.” In the wake of the more general observance, State Employee Recognition Day creates a special focus within the existing week-long observance on the work of state employees. Some of the ways that NASPE encourages states to observe the day include: proclamations signed by the governor proclaiming a Public Employee Recognition Day, some type of ceremony recognizing long-serving employees, outstanding employees, and other employee achievements or recognitions.

In Olympia, Washington’s state capital, a public event for workers included free food, information booths with goodies and giveaways, a talent contest, awards ceremonies and speeches by a few state officials. (See The Olympian article. Washington Governor Gary Locke told the assembled crowd, “Public service is not the most glamorous or profitable line of work. But it is one of the most important. It’s a noble calling — putting others first and trying to make the world a better place, one service and one need at a time.” Washington workers needed some positive reinforcement: as is typical of the situation in many states, current Washington state budget proposals contain fairly bleak scenarios for many state workers, some of whom face layoffs and all of whom are looking at potentially another two years without even a cost-of-living pay increase. Nine-year Washington state employee Clyde Strickland acknowledged that “[t]hese are difficult times, and we all have to share in the burden. But you can focus too much on the negative, and you shouldn’t let yourself do that. This is a positive day, instead of a negative one.”

Other states holding employee recognition days include: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Festivities in participating states range from an awards ceremony in Georgia to a barbecue in Idaho to a singing contest in Washington. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has asked local merchants to offer discounts to state employees. (See Stateline.org article.)

Protections against discrimination for state workers have also taken a huge hit over the last several years as the U.S. Supreme Court continues to hack away at antidiscrimination provisions in the name of “federalism.” While federalism is a complicated legal issue (see NOW LDEF summary for a basic explanation.), it’s very simple to describe its effects on state workers: workers who could formerly sue their states when they were discriminated against in many cases can no longer do so. By a single deciding vote, the Supreme Court has invalidated parts of a number of Congressional enactments, including several designed to protect the civil rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, the disabled and workers over 40. They have thrown out important sections of the Violence Against Women Act, limited the reach of overtime protections for state employees, weakened gun control and environmental laws, and even diluted patent and trademark protections. Pending before the Supreme Court is the question whether state workers denied family and medical leave can sue their state employers. (See Nevada D.H.R. v. Hibbs for more information about this pending Supreme Court case.) These cases affect all of the estimated two million state workers, who in many geographic areas across the country, work for the region’s largest employers, and thus have very few remaining options when encountering on-the-job discrimination.

A day to honor state workers is very admirable. In this day and age, they need all the support they can get.

More resources on federalism:

NSCLC Federal Rights Project

NOW LDEF Project on Federalism: Latest Developments

Community Rights Counsel: “States Rights vs. Civil Rights”

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