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To be or not to be essential (state worker)

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published February 24. 2013 4:00AM

No group of workers, I suspect, want to consider themselves nonessential, except perhaps when it means getting to stay home as the snow piles high and the roads become treacherous.

More than any of his predecessors, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has found himself issuing orders that only essential state employees report to work and that those nonessential folk stay home. This is because the governor has faced more weather emergencies than prior governors - Tropical Storm Irene, the freak snowstorm of October 2011, Superstorm Sandy and, most recently, the blizzard. I am sure I missed a couple.

Such orders always produce snickers, particularly among staunch fiscal conservatives who like to weigh in that, in their opinion, there are plenty of nonessential state workers who should find other jobs permanently. Gov. Malloy has said he is not thrilled with the term, but his administration has yet to come up with a better one.

I asked Andrew Doba, the governor's director of communications, to communicate what exactly constitutes essential and nonessential employees.

"Generally, all police, fire and other public safety related employees are 'essential.' Additionally, those employees who provide security and care for (the) incarcerated, clients, patients and other individuals in the care of the state. Also, some data processing individuals have been designated as essential if they are responsible for the operation of essential state computer systems," Doba explained in his emailed response.

Everyone else is nonessential.

The state can designate some employees as essential if circumstances dictate. Snowplow drivers are essential in a blizzard, for example, nonessential in a hurricane (though highway crews usually have plenty to do in the wake of a disaster).

Labor contracts do not cover who is essential or nonessential, but do make sure that people told to stay home are paid.

As far as the administration can determine, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. was the first Connecticut governor to use the term "essential" versus "nonessential." With the legislature stalemated over his push to impose an income tax for the first time in the state, and no budget approved, Gov. Weicker ordered nonessential employees to stay home (and not get paid). With many services shut down, pressure on the legislature increased.

When it comes to severe weather, the policy makes sense. During a natural disaster and its immediate aftermath, why send state employees out on the road, causing more work for police and other emergency personnel if they become stranded and, in the case of a snowstorm, getting in the way of cleanup? It is not as if there will be long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles during a blizzard.

Yet hearing about state workers getting to stay cozy at home is a bit galling for some in the private sector. Many are expected to show up for work even if their jobs are not terribly essential - cashiers at Wal-Mart - and don't get paid if they can't get to work or are told not to come in. Arguably, more businesses, not less, should follow the state's lead.

I asked Doba if he was essential - as he seemingly did not meet the criteria. He explained he must be because he worked 14-hour days during the blizzard. "Communications are of course very important in such situations," he said.

Journalists have long considered themselves essential. During 33 years in this business I have driven through many a snowstorm, and other severe weather event, to and from work. As I have prepared to skid away to work my wife has sometimes asked why exactly is my work essential? Couldn't I write about what happened after the storm is over? And all I do now is write opinions.

While I can't argue that it's essential that the public gets information from the news media about a storm (and other events that may happen during it) as soon as possible - and these days for newspapers that means constant Internet updates - it is something readers have come to expect. During all the chaos it is reassuring; it seems, to know what is going on out there. And after more than three decades of doing this for a living, I'm not about to disappoint them.

Break out the scraper.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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