National Public Radio’s Morning Edition broadcast a story on Friday (“As Workers’ Comp Varies From State To State, Workers Pay The Price”) that may not be as sexy as Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal,” but it illustrates as well as anything just how moneyed interests, usually represented by the Republican Party, are screwing workers each and every day.
Before I get to that story, I want to tell you something I discovered about workers’ compensation laws, while I was representing union workers in the federal system several years ago.
Early on in my union officer career, I was attending a training seminar hosted by a claims examiner for a field office of the federal Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) in Kansas City, which is under the U.S. Department of Labor.
It was during this training seminar that I learned that my testicles, should I lose them on the job, weren’t worth as much as my boss’s testicles, should he (it was a “he” at the time) lose his on the job. Please, let me explain.
The way the system works is that if you were to lose a “body member” on the job, you are entitled to what is called a “Schedule Award.” The reason it is called that is because there is a compensation schedule that is based on what someone, somewhere, sometime, determined was the value of your lost member, whatever it happened to be. And that value is determined by assigning to each lost member an increment of time.
Let’s say you lost your testicle in a freak accident at work. The federal workers’ compensation Schedule Award says that your testicle is worth 52 weeks, meaning 52 weeks at your rate of pay. Which then means that if you were making $30,000 a year, your missing marble will bring you an “award” of $30,000 from your employer or your employer’s insurer.
Now, keep in mind that no one actually determined that one of your love spuds is worth $30,000. What someone determined is that if, while working, you end up one gonad short of a full scrotum, your compensation is 52 weeks of pay. And this is where I raised my hand during the seminar and said something similar to the following:
Let me get this straight. If I lose my testicle, I get a year’s worth of pay. And if my boss loses his testicle, he also gets a year’s worth of pay. Except, he makes almost twice as much as I do. So, that means his balls are, in the eyes of the law, worth twice as much as mine, which doesn’t seem right to me since I am pretty sure I value mine at least as much as he values his.
That didn’t strike the OWCP representative, nor my union superiors, as particularly convincing. “Of course he gets more compensation for a lost body part,” they said. “That’s just the way it works.” But I was not having any of that nonsense. I said, “Seriously, why should his testicles be worth more than mine? Shouldn’t they be valued the same? Shouldn’t there be a fixed value attached to them when they, uh, become unattached?” No one could explain the logic, or the morality, of any of this to my satisfaction.
But that is the way it works. If you lose an arm in the federal workplace, you get 6 years of compensation. If you make $50,000 a year, your arm is worth $300,000. If you make $100,000 a year, your arm is worth $600,000. Sound fair to you? Of course not. But nothing about our workers’ compensation system is fair to the working stiffs who make the economy, and thus the world, turn.
Now, let’s move on to that NPR story, which had to do not with the federal system that I knew, but the various state systems:
Congress allows each state to determine its own benefits, with no federal minimums, so workers who live across state lines from each other can experience entirely different outcomes for identical injuries.
Nearly every state has what’s known as a “schedule of benefits” that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart.
That Angus beef chart is all too true. Like the federal system,
Workers are awarded a portion of their wages up to the state maximum for the specified number of weeks assigned to each body part. But depending on those numbers, the final amounts can vary widely.
The loss of an arm, for example, is worth up to $48,840 in Alabama, $193,950 in Ohio and $439,858 in Illinois. The big toe ranges from $6,090 in California to $90,401.88 in Oregon. Some states even put a value on the loss of a testicle.
I told you.
You can see that some of these state systems are even worse than the federal system of workers’ compensation. Not only does it matter how much money you make, in terms of valuing your lost member, but it matters where your arm, or your testicle, is when it is lost. Obviously, there is something wrong with this picture. But it gets worse for some folks:
The calculus of such losses can be dehumanizing. One worker at a Jasper, Ala., sawmill lost her thumb and every finger save her pinkie when her hand was dragged through the rusty gears of a scrap wood conveyor. But instead of paying the larger sum for her entire hand, the mill’s insurer has offered her only the benefits for each individual finger.
Can you believe that? How can the mill or its “insurer” get away with that? This is where we get back to politics:
Given their profound impact on people’s lives, how much compensation workers get for traumatic injuries seems like it would be the product of years of study, combining medical wisdom and economic analysis. But in reality, the amounts are often the result of political expediency, sometimes based on bargains struck decades ago.
Such decisions are part of greater rollback in protections for injured workers nationwide. Over the past decade, a ProPublica and NPR investigation found, state after state has slashed workers’ comp benefits, driven by calls from employers and insurers to lower costs.
In fact, employers are now paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp than at any time since the 1970s. Nonetheless, dozens of legislatures have changed their workers’ comp laws, often citing the need to compete with neighboring states and be more attractive to business.
The investigative reporter on this NPR story seemed to go out of his way not to directly accuse Republicans of weakening workers’ compensation laws and making it harder for workers to receive benefits. But it is obvious. I can tell you as someone who has represented people in the federal system, that as cumbersome and unfair as that system is, in most cases it is far better than what exists in the states, especially in Republican controlled states.
Here in Missouri, there has been a long-term effort by Republicans to make it tougher for workers to not only file claims, but to realize any benefits from those claims:
Republicans have long claimed that businesses needed greater protection against the uncertain costs of sometimes questionable claims about workplace injuries. In 2005, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed a law making it more difficult for people to win workers’ compensation cases by requiring them to prove that work was the “prevailing factor” for an injury instead of merely being a “substantial factor.” The 2005 law also required a strict application of its provisions instead of one “liberally construed with a view to the public welfare” as in the past.
Local Republican legislators, the Joplin Chamber of Commerce, and a local Joplin business executive, Herb Schmidt, have been aggressively involved in the fight to make it more difficult for Missouri workers to get justly compensated for on-the-job injuries. In a Joplin Globe story last summer, we learned the following:
Southwest Missouri interests are leading the charge to change workers’ compensation laws in the state.
State Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, is sponsoring a bill with proposed workers’ compensation changes that recently passed the Missouri House.
Representatives of several Joplin companies testified in favor of the bill, including Contract Freighters Inc., which has been a driving force behind the proposals.
“I have spent more time in Jefferson City in the last two years than I have spent in any other city in the United States,” said Herb Schmidt, president of the Joplin trucking company that is one of the region’s largest employers.
The reason Herb Schmidt spent so much time in Jefferson City is because our state’s capitol is controlled, overwhelmingly, by Republicans. And, as usual, the argument is that Missouri must win the race to the bottom with neighboring states or else the jobs will flee. Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Chamber of Commerce, said:
The vagueness of the language is open to legal interpretation and, with each case, legal precedent expands the scope of injuries covered by workers’ compensation, and, in turn, increases costs for every employer. … It is becoming a system that is not fair for employers. But, because it is impacting the keeping and creation of jobs in this state, it is becoming a system that is not fair to employees as well.
Yes. These nice business folks are just looking out for the workers by looking out for the businesses. O’Brian, according to the Globe, said Republican Wilson’s proposed bill could slash workers’ compensation for businesses by 30 percent. And that, of course, would change the long-term weather:
“Many of our colleagues around the state have seen it as an economic-development issue,” O’Brian said. “These kinds of changes in workers’ compensation all play into that overall business climate.”
For these people, it’s always about the business climate and never about the work climate. If it is raining on workers, you can bet somewhere there is a group of Republicans taking a long legislative piss, or at least threatening to. Here’s how Herb Schmidt summarized it, according to the Globe:
Schmidt said he believes CFI could save as much 40 percent on some of its workers’ compensation costs by moving to Oklahoma, in part because “there is a much more precise definition” as well as lower payouts for injuries.
“Lower payouts for injuries.” That’s what this is all about. Piss on the workers. Get hurt on the job, whether it is a short-term problem or a permanent injury like the loss of a testicle or an arm or a leg or anything else, and a member of the working class can count on a well-represented employer doing everything possible to make sure there is the lowest “payout” possible for the hurt.
And for that we can mostly thank the Republican Party and its many supporters, some of whom don’t know the value of their own, or someone else’s, testicles.