Working as a teacher was Bill Mathis’ top goal. It was his dream job.
But he quit his job at a school near Detroit in the state of Michigan last August. His school district was returning to in-person classes. But Mathis said he did not feel like it was safe enough. He was especially worried about his wife, who has the disease lupus.
“What about us and our families?” he asked school officials.
The 29-year-old teacher felt few in the community understood his concerns. “Good riddance,” one person told him.
His story is just one showing the struggles of American government workers known as public servants.
Jobs like teaching, firefighting, policing, government and social work have offered people the chance to give back to their communities. These jobs often earn good pay and benefits.
Opinion studies show public support for medical caregivers and teachers. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, firefighters had strong support.
But many public servants no longer feel like they have the support of their communities.
Many are overworked and feel very tired in systems that do not have enough workers. There is a shortage of teachers in Michigan and many other states. In cities like New York, Cincinnati and Seattle, there are not enough police. Many of these workers suffer from mental health problems, addiction and even suicide, especially among first responders.
Before the coronavirus health crisis, researchers found in 2018 that about half of American public servants said they were extremely tired, or burned out. That is compared with 20 percent of workers in all fields.
Adding to the problem, few young people work in public service careers. The Partnership for Public Service is a nonprofit organization that supports effective government. Their research shows that just six percent of people in public service jobs are younger than age 30 and about 45 percent are older than 50.
The pandemic has only intensified that situation.
Elizabeth Linos is a behavioral scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies public workers. “The workload is up. Financial security is down,” she said.
Linos’ research includes 911 emergency operators, doctors and others. She said studies during the pandemic have found that anxiety rates for frontline workers are 20 times higher than usual. “I’ve really never seen anything like it,” she said.
During the 2008 Great Recession, feelings against labor unions became common. Once, Detroit had been an area of strong support for labor unions. But some people in Detroit blamed labor organizations for troubles in the auto industry. That feeling has grown to include unions that represent public servants, including teachers.
Tim Deegan is from Waterford, Michigan. He manages a pizza restaurant. “They protect bad behavior, and they punish good behavior,” he said of unions. He said he has no union protections for a job where he often works 60 hours a week.
Deegan took part in a social media discussion about Michigan teachers who were retiring early. He said that online teaching has been poor and that teachers have “phoned it in,” or have not cared, for years.
Mathis said he was thanked early on in the pandemic by tired parents who were forced to teach their children at home. “This time last year, we were heroes,” he said. “Now, not so much.”
Derek Lies, a father of two, said he supported the teachers at first. But when the union argued against returning to in-person learning, “my sympathy went away,” he said.
Sue Ziel is a teacher in Mathis’ district and a union leader.
“Why were we the enemy?” she said. “You can’t love a teacher and hate a union because it’s the same thing.”
Kevin Edmond is the fire chief of Sterling Heights, Michigan. He said his department is making more of an effort to address problems of mental health and addiction. Edmond said he gives time off to employees who respond to deadly fires and other serious events.
Edmond has been a firefighter for 35 years. He said younger workers are more open to the department’s mental health and support programs.
“When I first started, there wasn’t such a thing…It was basically you’ll get over it,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of our profession, we see a lot of bad things.”
The number of workers in the fire department has remained the same since the mid-1990s. However, the department now makes more than three times as many calls.
Bringing young people to public service jobs can be difficult. Linos, the UC-Berkeley researcher, said today’s young people are finding other ways to “do good” – and make more money doing it.
She said that both the private and non-profit fields have used their own message of public service to attract workers.
They “are saying, ‘Come change the world,’ right?” Linos said. “So what government may have lost is the monopoly on public service.”
The day Mathis told his students he was leaving was “one the hardest days of my life,” he said. He now works in the state’s growing marijuana industry.
He doubts he will return to teaching. He said Michigan school districts have had to hire people who are not well trained for the job.
“It really hurts me to say -- I’m happy that I left teaching,” he said.
I’m Jill Robbins.
Martha Irvine reported this story for the Associated Press. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
good riddance — n. used to say that you are glad that someone is leaving or that something has gone
public servant — n. a government official or employee
first responder — n. a person (such as a police officer or an EMT) who is among those responsible for going immediately to the scene of an accident or emergency to provide assistance
anxiety — n. fear or nervousness about what might happen
terrifying — adj. causing great fear
monopoly — n. complete control of the entire supply of goods or of a service in a certain area or market
benefits — n.(pl.) something extra that is given by an employer to workers in addition to their pay
addiction — n. a strong and harmful need to have something or do something
manage — v. to have control of something such as a business, team or department