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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


A Workers'
Comp Victory!

UE News, July 1996

(In state legislatures across the United States, workers’ compensation benefits are coming under attack. In New York, where this writer lives, labor has just won a major victory in protecting injured workers. The lessons from this battle may be useful to workers elsewhere, although in each state the details will differ.)

Alice Hayes is a 62-year-old widow who worked for 19 years as a machine operator for Newburgh Molded Plastic Co. in Newburgh, N.Y. In 1993, her hands were crushed in a plastics molding machine. Both had to be amputated, along with the lower parts of each arm.

In most states Mrs. Hayes would have had to survive either with her relatively small workers’ compensation benefits. Or else she could sue the manufacturer of the machine which injured her — but not her employer. However, in New York, thanks to a legal precedent known as Dole v. Dow, Mrs. Hayes was able to recover $4 million in damages, 90 percent of which ($3.6 million) was paid by the owners of the plastics company.

Earlier this year, the Republicans in the state house launched a gut-and-cut attack on workers’ comp (gut the system, cut the costs). In February, company co-owner Sally Polhamus complained about the high costs of workers’ compensation, and called for the repeal of Dole v. Dow. Citing the case of Alice Hayes, the boss had the audacity to testify that Mrs. Hayes "is a relatively unintelligent 62-year-old woman who is on her own with $4 million!"

Polhamus said the accident was caused by a "freak mechanical problem," and didn’t say, until questioned further, that Alice Hayes had lost both hands. She also didn’t say that:

• The company had de-activated safety devices present on the machine.

• It had not installed any safety interlocks in their place.

• And the company had never maintained or inspected the remaining safety devices on the machine.

She didn’t say that, right after the accident, her company sold the machine to a company in Central America, so the machine couldn’t be inspected by the manufacturer or others. She and her insurance company said that any future "Alice Hayes" should be classified only as partially disabled and be paid less than $50 a week.

A VICTORY FOR WORKERS

The New York State AFL-CIO didn’t let Polhamus go unanswered. In a hard-hitting response, it said "We’d all like to believe that employers like Sally Polhamus don’t exist. But they do." The current comp system "reminds employers that they may be held accountable for putting workers in danger through the kind of ruthless corner-cutting that leads to injuries in the workplace."

The result of this fightback: Soon after the union report, the Governor backed off: Dole v. Dow was saved in cases of death or serious worker injury, as in the case of Alice Hayes. The Governor was also defeated in his call for New York to adopt American Medical Association (AMA) guidelines for compensating injuries, which would cut the benefit payments to most injured workers.

These AMA guidelines are popular among managers and anti-labor legislators who wish to cut benefits to injured workers. Nineteen states and territories already require use of these guides in evaluating worker disability. In one state, Texas, they are the sole basis for disability compensation, and that’s what Republicans wanted for New York as well.

The AMA guidelines were originally designed solely to evaluate the extent of medical disability. They do not consider the type of job the injured worker has, or the worker’s age, experience or training. All of these need to be considered in deciding a level of compensation.

Indeed, according to a hard-hitting report by Greg Tarpinian of the Labor Research Association, the AMA itself says its guidelines should not be used as the only basis for determining comp benefits.

Most workers’ comp experts in the U.S. say that comp benefits should be based on wage and earning loss, as well as extent of disability. A permanent loss of motion of an index finger will have a far greater effect on a person doing fine assembly of electronic parts than on a stockroom worker. A back injury may more severely impair a truck driver than a bank president. The AMA guidelines don’t consider such differences.

As we found in New York State, attempts to impose the AMA guidelines as an exclusive standard for comp benefits is an attack on all workers.


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