Public service in the US: Increasingly thankless, exhausting

Martha Irvine
AP National Writer
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Sterling Heights – He scurries through his apartment, downing a quick mug of coffee, brushing his teeth, feeding his pet rabbit, Auggie, before leaving. Not so long ago, Bill Mathis would have headed to his high school classroom to discuss great literature like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Odyssey” with his freshman.

It was his dream job, the one he referenced in a childhood journal he still keeps: “I would love to be a teacher,” he scrawled in pencil as a third grader.

This June 2020 selfie photo shows Bill Mathis of Romeo, in one of the rooms where he taught high school English.

Now Mathis has taken a new job, in Michigan’s newly legalized cannabis industry. The pay is better, the hours more regular, the stress less, he says. No longer does he worry that he’ll catch COVID-19. “What about us and our families?” he asked his school board in Romeo, Michigan, last August after it unveiled a plan to offer in-person classes.

Ultimately, the 29-year-old teacher felt few in the rural suburb north of Detroit understood. “Good riddance,” one resident said.

His is but one story of the plight of the American public servant. Historically, jobs like teaching, firefighting, policing, government and social work have offered opportunities to give back to communities while earning solid benefits, maybe even a pension. Surveys still show public admiration for nurses and teachers and, after the terror attacks of 9/11, firefighters.

But many public servants no longer feel the love.

They’re battered and burnt out. They’re stretched by systems where shortages are common – for teachers in Michigan and several other states, for instance, and for police in many cities, from New York and Cincinnati to Seattle. Colleagues are retiring early or resigning, as Mathis did. There are mental breakdowns, substance abuse and even suicide, especially among first responders.

Even before the coronavirus arrived, researchers have found in 2018 that about half of American public servants said they were burnt out, compared with 20% over workers overall.

This summer 2020 photo provided by Bill Mathis shows him and his girlfriend, Annie Siwak, in Rochester.

Some wonder who will pick up the slack, as more young people avoid public service careers. In the federal government, just 6% of the workforce is younger than age 30, while about 45% is older than 50, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

The pandemic has only made matters worse.

In addition to the risk COVID-19 poses for those on the front lines, “The workload is up. Financial security is down,” said Elizabeth Linos, a behavioral scientist and public management scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies public workers.

Linos, whose research has included 911 operators, physician moms and others, says surveys 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.

Long before the pandemic, mistrust of the government and its workers was building. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’” President Ronald Reagan famously said in a 1986 speech, as the country braced for a recession.

By the time the 2008 Great Recession arrived, anti-union sentiment also was more prevalent – a big deal in the Detroit area, known as a union stronghold because of the auto industry. That bashing has grown to include unions that represent public servants, teachers included.

“They protect bad behavior, and they punish good behavior,” said Tim Deegan, a dad from Waterford, Michigan, who manages a pizza parlor. He notes that he has no such protections for a job that often finds him working 60 hours a week.

Earlier this year, Deegan took part in a rambunctious social media discussion about the large numbers of Michigan teachers who are retiring early, even more during the pandemic. Educators certainly had their supporters in the online thread. But others, including Deegan, were angry. He told the story of his girlfriend’s son – how they’d switched him to another school district because he felt the online teaching was so poor. Some teachers, he said, have “phoned it in” for years, with few repercussions.

Bill Mathis, not one to shy from speaking his mind, jumped into the discussion. He posted about leaving teaching because of the health risks to himself and his girlfriend, Annie, who has lupus, and how his salary made it hard to pay his bills.

“So you weren’t in it for the kids?” another commenter asked, drawing dozens of emoticon reactions, from anger to laughter.

Mathis wondered why he’d bothered. Of course, he loved his students, but some would never believe it. “This time, last year we were heroes,” praised early on in the pandemic by exhausted parents who’d been forced to step into the role of teacher, he said. “Now, not so much.”

Derek Lies, a dad of two boys in Romeo, said he felt for teachers – at first. But as the union pushed back on returning to the classroom, “my sympathy went away,” he said.

The good reputation of the schools in Romeo had been part of the draw when Lies, a mechanical engineer, moved with his family to Michigan from California more than five years ago. But he started to worry when the pandemic arrived, and he became a regular presence at the school board meetings thereafter. When Mathis made his case about safety at last August’s online meeting, Lies was unmoved.

“If you want to keep your job, you have to come to work,” Lies said in a recent interview. “And if that’s not OK, we’re going to have to find someone to replace you.”

Years ago, Lies was a firefighter. He doesn’t deny that burnout is real and that COVID-19 has made many jobs harder. “Maybe I’ve become less understanding,” he said. If there’s one group of public servants who have reason to gripe, he added, it’s police, who’ve faced heightened scrutiny over the killings of George Floyd and others.

Sterling Heights Fire Department Chief Kevin Edmond works at a vaccine distribution location in Sterling Heights, Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

“I can’t imagine anyone wanting that job right now,” Lies said.

Increasingly, first responders across the country are acknowledging the difficulties of the job and addressing mental health, addiction and the occasional suicide. In Sterling Heights, where Mathis lives, fire chief Kevin Edmond gives time off to crews who’ve responded to fatal fires and other trauma.

Edmond, who’s been a firefighter and EMT for 35 years, said younger staffers are more open to the department’s mental health and peer 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.”

While staffing levels in his department have remained the same since the mid-1990s, the number of runs the department makes for various emergencies has increased from 5,000 annually to more than 16,000. “A lot of people are using EMS as their primary health care providers,” often because they have no insurance, Edmond said.

He’s constantly on the lookout for new recruits and, with the requirement that his firefighters also have EMT certification, has extended his search to Ohio and other states. The department, as many others do, also has a Young Explorers program with a few high schools to try get more teens interested before they choose another career path.

Attracting young people to public service fields can be a challenge. But Linos, the UC-Berkeley researcher, says it’s not necessarily the difficulty that scares them off.

In fact, in the case of policing, her research has found that more people apply when told the job is challenging. Her research has found that a sense of belonging and feeling supported by a supervisor also helps soothe burnout.

Even so, Linos says today’s young people see other ways to “do good” – and make more money doing it.

“The private sector and the social sectors, like the nonprofits, have co-opted the public service message, and so … are saying, ‘Come change the world,’ right?” Linos said. “So what government may have lost is the monopoly on public service.”

A number of young adults also are running for public office, seeing that as a way to give back.

Mai Xiong, a new member of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, works on a computer in her store in Warren, Thursday, April 29, 2021.

Mai Xiong, a new member of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners – the county where Mathis lives – is one of them. As a woman of Hmong descent, and with hate crimes against people of Asian descent on the rise during COVID-19, she worried how voters might react to her candidacy.

Before last year’s election, she campaigned door to door, pulling her young children in a wagon behind her. She was heartened that the reaction in Warren, the city that includes her district, was largely positive. And she won handily, taking out an old-guard member of the board.

“I have faith in people,” said Xiong, who’s 35 and owns a clothing business. “I put myself out there in a very vulnerable position, knowing that at any given time, I could be targeted. But I have to put myself out there to get a voice at the table.”

Last month, the board adopted her resolution condemning hate crimes and hateful rhetoric against Asian Americans.

Twenty miles to the north, back in Romeo, sixth-grade geography teacher and union leader Sue Ziel recalls starting to feel more resentment from the public when the recession began in 2008. A Gallup poll then found that public approval of unions dropped to a low of 48 percent, compared with 72 percent when the poll began in 1936, though it has been creeping up.

“Why were we the enemy? You can’t love a teacher and hate a union because it’s the same thing,” said Ziel, who has remained in the school district Mathis left.

As the pandemic hit, she initially felt “paralyzed” at the thought of having to teach kids online and in person at the same time. She also got the virus.

“I remember sitting in tears and telling my husband ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and those words have never come out of my mouth,” said Ziel, who left a job in advertising 24 years ago to teach. Even before then, she said the demands of the job had increased. There are more required certifications, more focus on standardized testing, while pay freezes diminished teacher wages across the state of Michigan.

Sue Ziel, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Romeo Middle School, works in her classroom in Romeo, Tuesday, April 27, 2021.

As a veteran with experience on which she could draw, Ziel pushed through but said younger staffers were more likely to struggle with less support in a stressful time, as Mathis did.

“It breaks my heart. I really think the world of Bill,” she said. With his bushy beard, he looked a bit like a lead singer in a rock band and he connected well with his ninth graders, she said, though his sometimes quirky style wasn’t always as appreciated by what can be a buttoned-up Romeo community.

“When you talk about a calling to be a teacher, he’s like the poster child,” Ziel said. As union leader, she accompanied Mathis to meetings with administrators after he posted a profanity-laden rant about COVID-19 and teaching last year, though he didn’t name the district. He has since removed the foul language but isn’t sorry he expressed how he felt. “I was scared,” he said.

In the Sterling Heights apartment he shares with two roommates, Mathis still displays various mementos students have given him over the years. He pulls out an electric guitar covered with student signatures from a musical he helped direct. There’s a jar filled with hand-written messages students wrote to inspire him on bad days. A painting a student created and brought on his last day rests on a nearby shelf.

He reads a card to “Mr. Mathis” from a female student he had nicknamed “Smiley.”

Bill Mathis packages THC products in Hazel Park, Thursday, April 29, 2021.

“When battling a lot of issues and intense sadness in high school, this one teacher encouraged me to smile …,” the card reads. “That nickname made such a difference.”

The day he told his students he was leaving was “one the hardest days of my life,” Mathis said. He didn’t share anything about his new job, only that he needed to take care of himself and his family. Now at the cannabis plant, he spends much of his day compiling and shipping orders of gummies and other pot products.

Now that he’s vaccinated, he’s thought about becoming a mentor to a young person, or volunteering for a youth theater. He’d still like to give back, but on his own terms.

He doubts he’d return to teaching in a state where some school districts have had to resort to hiring people who aren’t always trained for the job.

“In my lifetime, I think there will be small reforms, but I don’t think it’ll be enough …,” Mathis said. “It really hurts me to say – I’m happy that I left teaching.”

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