Indian River County public workers take to bridge to show solidarity

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – More than 100 public employees, mostly School District workers, and supporters marched on the Barber Bridge in Vero Beach Monday to show  support for each other at a time when they feel they are under attack.

Motorists passing by honked horns in seeming support of the workers, who clutched signs of varying messages – most with the sentiment that the state should not attack public workers. Mike Scott, president of the Teamsters Local 769, said that Monday, April 4, was chosen for the rally because it is the anniversary of when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, standing up for public workers who went on strike.

“Attacks on the workers continue today,” Scott said. The Teamsters union represents both county and city blue-collar workers.

“We’re trying to get the message out that the public employees are not the reason for the mess,” he said, referring to the budget issues different levels of government are facing.

The rally in Indian River County was one of many held nationwide, in part to show support for the public employee unions in Wisconsin and other states.

Lawmakers are contemplating changes to laws that concern public employees, including teachers, school district personnel, law enforcement personnel and firefighters.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed cutting the state government payroll by roughly 10 percent over two years and also wants employees to accept as of yet unspecified health care benefit cuts.

“I will make the hard budget choices to bring spending in line with revenues,” Scott said in his 2011 Policy and Budget Recommendations. Among the choices to consider, he said, is “aligning state employee pensions and health care with other states and the private sector.”

Doing so would save the state $2.8 billion, Scott said.

State workers received a three percent general pay adjustment Oct. 1, 2006, the last general wage increase, according to the Florida Department of Management Services.

Another change the Florida legislature is considering is requiring public employees to pay into the Florida Retirement System.

Beth Weatherstone, president of the Indian River County Education Association – the teachers’ union – likened the proposed contribution to the Florida Retirement System as “nothing more than a tax.”

“This is an outright attack on the middle class,” Weatherstone said.

Weatherstone said that Florida is No. 47 in the country in terms of teacher pay, though the students perform in the top 5 percent. She said teachers are doing a great job but they’re not compensated for it.

Weatherstone  helped organize the rally to bring awareness to the county’s residents and workers.

“Our voice hasn’t really been heard,” she said.

What they had to say:

Kyle Kofke, firefighter/paramedic: He is concerned “public safety-wise” because current proposals call for delayed retirement. “They want us to work longer.” He added that could result in older firefighters and EMTs handling emergencies.

Edgar Bernier, Indian River County resident and St. Lucie County firefighter: “We want quality teachers.” As public employees, “we don’t ask to live in a lavish lifestyle,” he said, but one that pays a decent wage and won’t leave them worrying about how they’ll survive retirement.

Oslo Middle School food service worker Alice Tory: “It’s for our rights. “We need benefits.”

Representatives for Region 4 Florida Department of Corrections (didn’t want names printed): “We don’t get paid enough as it is,” said one employee. “I haven’t had a raise in six years,” another employee, a woman, said. They voiced opposition to the proposed forced employee contributions into the Florida Retirement System along with pay cuts. “We take pride in keeping the public safe,” another man said, adding that safety is worth more than a dollar amount.

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