October 18, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

The US workers’ compensation system isn’t so much a system as it is a collection of state programs with varying rules and requirements. The basic idea is that employers purchase workers-compensation insurance, and when a worker is injured or made ill on the job, the insurer will cover medical costs and, if the worker misses more than a few days on the job, pay wage-replacement benefits. It’s intended to avoid high-stakes litigation in which employers and workers fight over who’s at fault; instead, it’s supposed to compensate anyone with a work-related illness or injury.

In practice, many workers find the system to be “exceedingly complex, opaque, and dehumanizing,” explain the National Economic and Social Rights Initative (NESRI) and National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). These organizations have launched Workers’ Comp Hub, a resource for workers with job-related injuries and illnesses and for advocates seeking to improve the system. It includes links to state-specific resources and to articles and reports about the issues. And it collects stories from workers who’ve experienced the workers’ compensation system. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Allen Ray Bernard, who led the Louisiana Injured Worker Union from 1990 to 2004:

It all started when I was injured in the line of duty while working at a sugar refinery. My right shoulder was injured badly and the doctor said that was due to a repetitive motion disorder from lifting heavy objects. My injury developed into a permanent disability. From earning $6000-7000 a month, I was earning $262 a week, nothing else. I qualified for nothing else. And even the comp payments- they might come but might not.  Lost my house, my car and my family because of my injury and because of the system. And this is the story of many workers. Getting injured was an immediate eye-opener. The system just does not care about you. I was educated right quick that something is wrong. What did I do wrong? All I was guilty of was going to work one day. But we can’t roll over- we got to fight back. Someone created this unjust system- someone got to tear it down. So a few of us injured workers, including Wilfred Renard, Joey Geraou and myself started an injured worker group together and we built from there.

… There were not a lot of us initially, perhaps six or seven of us in New Orleans, two or three in Louisiana and two or three people in Baton Rouge. But we expanded slowly and over time, calls came in and we had over a hundred members across the state. You would be surprised, once injured and ill workers get past their fear; once they realize that whatever you do, you will get attacked anyway; that there would be private  investigators tailing them anyways; once they realize they have nothing to lose; they are all in and committed to the fight. At times, injured workers would come to us looking for handouts. We gave them no handouts- what we wanted was to put hammers in their hands so they can go out and fight for their rights.

… It took us a few years to really learn the system but that’s an important piece. As part of our efforts to understand the system, we spent a lot of time at the state legislature. It is also important to understand who the players in the game are- to form a core group of allies.  There are even people within the system, for example, some social security judges and comp judges or doctors, who are sympathetic to injured workers and willing to help. The learning process took a few years.

… It was important to decide on targets and issues to fight for.  We started out by picking key issues. One of the issues many workers faced was that there were just no compensation payments for months and months, if at all. Insurance companies could get away with just about anything. So we started lobbying for legislation that ensured prompt payment of workers’ compensation- we started picketing state offices and picking up people to join the fight. We mobilized and organized and raised awareness and ultimately won that fight. We passed the prompt payment bill through our efforts and with the help of the state AFL-CIO.

We continued our work at the legislature. We worked hard to hold our politicians accountable. We made it clear that if they voted against our interests, we would show up at their neighborhoods and churches to tell their communities how they voted. We were a force to be reckoned with. Politicians were scared of us. Some of them would even come tell us that we can’t vote in your favor but we will take a bathroom break during the voting process so we do not have to vote at all and that at least will help you. Workers were all fired up and there was no stopping them. We passed bills, yes, but we also stopped bad bills and that’s just as important.

Visit the Workers’ Comp Hub for more on this important, and often overlooked, issue.

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