By CHRIS TOWNSEND
UE Political Action Director
You Get Hurt on the Job:
Get proper medical attention.
File a complete accident report.
Make sure the union is aware of your
If necessary, apply for workers’
Keep any evidence regarding your accident or
Make notes of the circumstances of your
accident, names of witnesses, etc.
Keep a diary of your medical treatment and of
developments with your claim for workers’ compensation.
Watch what you say when talking to your
employer, the insurance company, or company
"consultants." Whatever you say, or anything you
sign, WILL be used against you.
Follow through on your medical treatment.
From beginning to end, stay in close contact
with your UE local (and your attorney, if you need one).
Ten Jobs with the
Highest Illness/Injury Rates:
stock handlers and baggers
(source: U.S. Dept. Of Labor,
Injuries Requiring Time Off:
sprains and strains
lacerations and cuts
carpel tunnel syndrome
(Source: U.S. Dept. Of Labor 1997)
You may have seen this on television. The grainy video shows a
robust young man running up a twenty-foot ladder, carrying a very heavy bundle
of new shingles. We watch as he puts a new roof on his house in the blazing
sun. The scene shifts to lawn mowing or furniture moving, water skiing or snow
The host of the TV show finally gives us the punch line:
"This man, who claims he was so severely injured in a workplace accident
that he was unable to work, is now being prosecuted for insurance fraud. His
claim for workers’ compensation has been denied." End of story.
While these hidden-camera productions purport to
"expose" other kinds of insurance fraud, such sensationalism turns
every injured person into a suspect. This is the impression big business wants
to create — injured workers are just faking it.
Hype about fake injuries provides a cover for
business-inspired, phony reform of a system in desperate need of genuine
Our current workers’ compensation system has evolved over
the past 90 years as a way of helping working people deal with on-the-job
injuries and deaths. And the U.S. workplace can be hazardous to your health.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics tell some of the story. In 1997, a total
of 1.8 million injuries and illnesses that required time away from work were
reported in the private sector alone! Almost 70% of those injured had been on
the job for at least one year. Almost one quarter of all injuries required
more than three weeks off the job.
It’s the "lucky" ones who only get hurt. In 1997,
a total of 6,218 working people were killed on the job in the United States,
an unfortunate increase of 106 deaths over 1996.
Still, workplace health and safety has significantly improved
during this century. Enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in
1970 due to labor agitation has meant a steady improvement in the rate of
injury and death in the workplace. A look back to the early part of this
century offers evidence of the progress.
Research by the University of Chicago conducted in the
mid-1930s paints a horrific picture of more than 20,000 U.S. workers killed
every year on the job, in a workforce that was less than half of today’s
size. This would translate into more than 50,000 annual workplace deaths
today. This research also revealed more than 100,000 working people severely
maimed at work each year, and almost 7 million working people injured and
requiring time away from work.
Go back in time further and the statistics become even worse.
A study by the National Safety Council in 1922 reported more than 76,000
working people killed at work during 1921!
The current workers’ compensation system is a state-by-state
patchwork of plans that began to evolve early in this century, designed
primarily to pay the medical bills and lost wages of injured workers.
In response to the wholesale slaughter of working people on
the job — and because of growing bad publicity and legal problems for
negligent employers — various state legislatures created the first programs
to compensate workers who are killed or hurt at work. Big business reluctantly
agreed to support the creation of the state-by-state system, figuring that it
would be much easier to influence and control the state legislatures who
maintained control of the program. In return for the
"cooperation" of the employers, the vast majority of state
compensation systems were established as "no fault" plans where
workers are prevented from taking their employers to court regarding their
New York State passed the first legislation to compensate
injured workers in 1910, expanding it with another law in 1913. Other states
slowly followed, primarily those states with active labor unions and reform
movements pushing vigorously for this critical legislation. In 1917, the U.S.
Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the New York compensation plan,
opening the door to rapid growth of workers’ compensation programs in the
states. By 1935, only Arkansas and Mississippi had failed to enact some sort
of compensation system for working people injured at work.
The history of legislation and statistics about improvements
in workplace health and safety are of little consolation to the woman or man
who is injured or poisoned on the job. And the pain and trauma of the injury
itself begins to pale in comparison to the confusion and frustration that many
encounter when they step into the labyrinth world of workers’ compensation.
A FLAWED SYSTEM
Many state compensation systems have been inferior,
anti-worker and in need of improvement virtually from their inception. Few
plans ever worked very well, but even the worst of the state systems provided
a minimal safety net for injured working people. Almost all state workers’
compensation systems are based on a model of private insurance companies
selling insurance policies to employers, policies that pay for the medical
costs and lost wages of employees injured on the job. The individual states
are given the task of regulating this system, supposedly making sure that
working people are treated fairly by their employers and the insurance
companies. This is the basic flaw of most workers’ compensation systems.
Even at its best, workers’ compensation is confusing and
intimidating to the average worker. It is all the more so to an injured
worker. Working people fortunate enough to belong to a labor union at least
have the option of seeking advice and assistance, but the vast majority of the
working population has no choice but to confront the system on their own. The
sad fact is that millions of working people who are injured on the job simply
accept their employers’ explanations when they encounter problems or have
Some workers are also steered by their bosses into applying
for sickness and accident payments instead of filing a claim for workers’
compensation. Many workers find this to be a less confusing option — but
then find themselves out of luck when injury or illness becomes chronic or
disabling. Many employers aggravate the situation by administering
disciplinary warnings to nearly all injured workers, blaming the victims from
Spurred by the high costs of the insurance company model and
by a general desire to rid themselves of any responsibility for employees who
become injured or poisoned at work, bosses have gone on the offensive against
workers’ compensation. Over the past decade corporate and insurance company
lobbyists joined hands and swarmed through virtually every state capitol.
State lawmakers have been bribed and stampeded into making drastic and
anti-worker cuts to workers’ compensation systems that were already
To further their phony "reform" bosses told
politicians that these cuts were needed because millions of working people
were faking serious illness and injury in order to cheat the system. They also
threatened to pick up and move their operations to states with cheaper
In Pennsylvania, the state legislature adopted several bills
that rolled back benefits for injured workers and costs for employers.
Employer costs in Pennsylvania plummeted more than $1.2 billion between 1993
and 1998, while benefits to injured employees have dropped several hundred
million dollars. In Ohio, with the enthusiastic support of then-Gov. (now
Sen.) George Voinovich, the legislature passed a bill that brazenly
transferred more than $200 million of funds for injured workers’ claims back
to business. And in a show of strength not seen very often in recent years,
organized labor mounted a successful campaign to repeal this outrageous law at
the ballot box in 1997. In Massachusetts in 1991, then-Gov. William Weld led a
major campaign to reduce benefits for injured workers.
During the course of this decade more than 40 states have
enacted workers’ compensation reforms that have largely meant fewer rights
and benefits for injured workers and lower costs for companies.
In addition to the legislative attacks on workers’
compensation systems, companies have been increasingly monitoring and
supervising the care and rehabilitation of their injured employees. Some
corporations like General Electric have retained full-time, outside
consultants who set up shop in-plant and do nothing but monitor the cases of
injured workers. Company officials and their outside agents are in regular
contact with the injured workers, in many cases pressuring them to make
decisions that are in the best interests of the company. Corporations
large and small are also expanding their surveillance and secret videotaping
of injured workers as a means of entrapping injured workers. The growing
micro-management of the cases of injured workers by employers reminds all of
us that our union needs to make sure that these members are not left to fend
for themselves to deal with the confusing world of workers’ compensation.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
The ultimate solution to the current workers’ compensation
crisis is to dramatically expand organized labor’s political action at the
state level. All working people — including UE members — need to rebuild
our political muscle in every state capitol across the country. And while
there is nothing wrong with dreaming about the eventual enactment of a
national, federal workers’ compensation system to replace our patchwork
system, in the meantime, our work needs to be concentrated on defending and
improving the existing arrangement.
State lawmakers need to hear directly from UE members about
the problems of the current system, and they need to hear our ideas for the
kinds of changes and improvements that will restore some measure of fairness
and dignity to injured workers in each state. The workers’ compensation
issue reminds us of the need for UE members to mount regular state
"Political Action Days," when UE members visit state capitols to
meet with their lawmakers regarding workers’ compensation and other key
issues at the state level. In the absence of our voices at the state level we
should expect little more than a continued assault on our already anemic
workers’ compensation systems, as lobbyists for big business work year-round
to reduce benefits and tighten eligibility requirements.
And while we fight to defend and eventually improve workers’
compensation, we have the ability through our union to work as hard as
possible to defend our injured members. UE shop stewards can assist injured
workers with problems arising from injuries and filing claims for workers’
compensation. UE locals are strongly encouraged to designate someone within
the local to become the resident expert on workers’ compensation. It’s
important that locals make an effort to stay in touch with members who are off
work due to an on-the-job injury, to prevent members from falling victim to
self-serving advice from the boss, the insurance company or from returning to
work prematurely due to pressure from the employer.
Despite our best efforts to force our employers to maintain a
safe and healthy workplace, injuries and illnesses do occur. When they do, our
imperfect workers’ compensation system is there to pay for medical treatment
and to provide income for workers who are off work. And while we condemn the
abuse of any safety net program by a tiny minority, we should re-affirm our
demand that working people are entitled to their maximum benefits under the
Injured and poisoned workers should enjoy the ability to
recuperate and rebuild their health. We shouldn’t be forced to run a
minefield of confusion, fear, and suspicion as we do so.