All Testicles Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

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.

7 Comments

  1. genegarman

     /  March 9, 2015

    Right on, Duane! I am retired from two organized labor unions and proud of it. As a union pipefitter and later a union letter carrier, I earned decent living wages and benefits, which continue in retirement. I never vote for Republican Chamber of Commerce Religion Right Party candidates, the same old connection between priests and money changers as existed in the days of Jesus–I also have a B.A. and an M.Div. degree, both of which I earned after spending time in Korea with the U.S. Marines. Employers who pay poverty wages should be ashamed. Without unions, nearly all workers would be living paycheck to paycheck, as millions today are doing, while the rich, without compassion, get richer–so much for the “Golden Rule.”

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  2. I still recall, just like it was yesterday, the day I almost lost several fingers. It was in June, 1955. At 18, I had finished high school and had a month or so before I was scheduled to report to the U.S. Naval Academy. To earn some “spending money” (there’s a blue-collar term for you, chock full of meaning), my father got me a short-term job on an oil rig with him. I guess I was a temporary “rough-neck”. Anyway, as my dad operated a hoist to pick up a cable-tool drill bit, I was trying to guide it. The thing was segmented, of two parts, and the heavy metal pieces suddenly slipped together. My fingers were close to being in the wrong place, but only got pinched. It really didn’t occur to me that this narrow miss could have drastically changed my life and terminated my Naval career, but it did to my dad. He was ashen-faced and had to sit down for a while, during which the reality seeped into me.

    I have no idea if there would have been worker’s compensation in those days, but I rather doubt it. Rough-necks were plentiful on the market and no doubt the finger average among them was well below 10. On such tiny moments the future is suspended.

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  3. ansonburlingame

     /  March 9, 2015

    Duane,

    As DeToucville wrote (in the 1830’s as I recall), America’s downfall might well be a result of the never ending quest for equality. This particular blog, as well as the never ending divide between you and me, politically, reflects just that dilemma. Maybe 100 years from now some other “Duane and Anson” will continue that debate as well. No one has yet resolved it for sure.

    Let’s cut to the essence of this particular issue, a lost of BOTH testicles by a man. That means NO ability to have children or even sexual intercourse for the rest of a man’s life. How does anyone put a dollar value on that disability? In my view an 18 year old’s testicles would be worth a lot more than those of a 50 year old, forget salaries, benefits, station in life, etc. But again, how can anyone put a dollar value on the fact that any man will no longer be able to have a sexual orgaism!!!

    Let’s take it a step farther, the cause of such a loss of testicles, call it a “disability”. Take a soldier on a battlefield and they were “shot off” while he was rescuing a fallen soldier and received a Medal of Honor for such actions. How much money should he receive?

    Or instead the soldier that may have deserted 5 or so years ago lost his while in the hands of the Taliban. Are his worth any less??? How much should he receive, along with a dishornable discharge and time in prison?

    I suppose such a “workplace accident” is very rare, but the cases above could possibly be made, one man is “disabled because ……” and another because of actions radically different.

    While your example is headline grabbing for sure it seems to boil down to how one’s life is really affected, for the rest of your life, from such accidents in the workplace. Loss of sexual capacity should have little affect on a man’s ability to “work” (after a long recovery I suppose). One can “weld steel” with or without testicles, I suppose but trying to do so without an arm is a different matter. So what is “fair”, financially, becomes the debated question.

    I wish there was a clear answer, for me at least. I only know that if I had “lost’em” a week after graduation from college I would have been medically discharged from the Navy and received a lifelong pension with medical benefits for the rest of my life. Had you lost “yours” one week after beginning with the Post Office I suppose you would have received similar “compensation”. But if Jim Wheeler had lost his as a young man on an oil rig, well ……

    Now just how much money would it cost and who would pay it to keep such a matter equal and thus fair?

    As for equality between states for worker’s compensation, I suggest that the Constitution did not address the issue, other than to say the State’s would have to decide that matter. So should we now debate another Constitutional Amendment, or just try to “interpret” the Constitutional merits of compensation for the inability to have a sexual orgaism???

    Anson

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    • You ask a lot of questions in your comment, Anson, but you leave me wondering whether you approve of any workman’s compensation at all. After all that musing and after making a case that pricing a handicap is subjective, do you or don’t you think it is a proper function of government to compensate the unlucky in a way that preserves basic dignity and keeps one at or above the poverty level?

      “Poverty level”, incidentally, is defined, with perhaps surprising objectivity, according to current pricing of basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. The current federal poverty level guideline for a single-person household is $11,490. If a person were, say, 50% disabled at 18 over a working life of (65-18) = 47, that would produce an annual compensation of $5,745 (sans inflation), or a lump sum of $270,015 in 2015 dollars. Maybe there is sense in some states’ figures after all.

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  March 10, 2015

    You got me there Jim.

    I elaborated on the challenges of a “system” without revealing a good solution to it. I suggest I am following in Duane’s footsteps in doing so when he rants against GOPers. All rant no compromises in my view in many cases.

    Do I support a government mandated worker’s compensation system. Let me be clear. I don’t want to support such a system as I don’t believe government does very well in the insurance business.

    But that is a really long and involved postion to support and I won’t try herein. But to federalize to ensure fairness, well a simple No such suffice to establish my position on that count.

    Anson

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    • Thanks for answering candidly, Anson. I must say, I think you do a creditable job of representing the conservative viewpoint on these things. Given that, and just to be clear, when you say,

      I don’t believe government does very well in the insurance business.

      then I assume you consider things like the federal flood insurance program, FEMA, and similar natural disaster coverage an unjustified use of tax money.

      And when you say,

      But to federalize to ensure fairness, well a simple No such suffice to establish my position on that count.

      then I assume you would favor phasing out Social Security and Medicare for people just entering the workforce.

      Jim

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  March 11, 2015

    Com’on Jim,

    Medicare is a government run health care system that spends about $250 Billion MORE each year than it takes in. No insurance company could survive doing such a thing, particularly with a $70 Billion per year level of waste, fraud and abuse, year after year. Of course I could go on with other examples.

    Do we all NEED good health care? Of course we do, each and every one of us. Howj to achieve that goal is the question to real challenge for any society in a modern world today. Certainly I don’t have the answers but just expecting government to do it all for us is ……..??

    You and I both sturggle with the big societal issues today and neither of us is completely correct in our proposed solutions. I admit to any one, any where any time that “I’m Not Sure”, but will as well ask them “Are You?”. Not my writing does not always sound uncertain, wishy washy, but in my heart, welll ……….

    But only by exchanging ideas on various solutions to some really timeless problems related the the “human condition” can progress be made. But I do demand this, Jim. If government is going to do the job, then government must do it well, period.

    The only area that I feel capable of informed judgment related to government actions is National Security. Sure there are much better minds than mine in that area but I remain comfortable with my opinions so related more often that not. For 60 years oir military and NCA have done a credible job protecting and defending our nation, in general. But pull stunts such as was done in Benghazi demonstrates a lack of ……… at many levels of government that cannot continue, as just an example of great concern on my part at least.

    Anson

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