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Special Risk Classification Bill Would Benefit Thousands of State Employees

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Representative Vance Aloupis and Senator Manny Diaz Jr. filed a bill this week that would reclassify nearly two thousand state employees who work at facilities and perform services for individuals who have a mental illness and are involved with the criminal justice system. The Special Risk Class would afford just protections, higher compensation and early retirement for workers that spend at least 65 percent of their time in direct contact with residents and patients. 

"The recognition of these dedicated men and women and the challenging jobs they do day in and day out is long overdue," said Senator Diaz. 

The bill would affect state workers at four facilities who have long labored in the shadows and not been recognized for the dangerous and highly demanding work they do caring for, teaching, rehabilitating, guarding and providing a clean and safe environment for criminally and civilly committed mental patients. The facilities includes are Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny, North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville, Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, and the Sunland Developmental Disabilities in Marianna. 

“We are the backbone of these facilities,” said Tallulah Thomas, a Behavioral Program Specialist with the Developmental Disabilities Program at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. “This is traumatic, mentally and physically exhausting work, even when there is not a hurricane happening.” 

Thomas was one of over 300 staff members at Chatahoochee who worked tirelessly in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael to care for over 1,000 residents when the hospital was severely damaged and cut off by the storm in October. Left with only emergency radios to communicate with first responders, Thomas helped direct delivery of supplies and food which had to be air dropped after the hospital was left inaccessible. This epitomizes the dedication and seriousness with which employees at these facilities take their duties even under the worst of circumstances. 

If passed, the reclassification bill would designate workers at Florida’s mental facilities as Special Risk Class within the Florida Retirement System joining law enforcement, firefighters and employees at correctional facilities who are already classified Special Risk and perform work similar in nature. Forensic Health Care workers help provide medical and humanitarian services for mentally disabled people whose illnesses have forced them into the criminal justice system or to be civilly committed. These patients can be some of the most dangerous and difficult to work with. State workers are often bitten, spat upon, urinated on and a whole host of other dangerous types of assaults causing both physical and emotional anguish.  Their hard work and dedication protect our safety and the safety of the mentally ill.  However, they have never been afforded special risk status when it comes to the calculation of retirement benefits and terms of service.  In 2000, managers, supervisors, nurses and other professional personnel were granted special risk status, but the frontline staffers, those who have the most contact with these patients, were not.  This bill would correct this serious injustice. 

Employees at the four facilities perform vital work critical to the safety and well-being of Florida residents and communities. The nature of this work is often mentally and physically grueling and dangerous, leading to short- and long-term injuries and stress, as these employees work directly with residents and patients who have been deemed a danger to themselves or to others. Reclassifying these hard-working public servants is a just and overdue recognition of the sacrifices they make daily on behalf of all Floridians.