Worker's compensation by pengxuezhi


									Worker’s compensation
        If multitasking is the most recent buzz word to describe the workplace—well,
you’re not telling anything to union stewards because active union reps have been
juggling various responsibilities for generations—activities both inside and outside the
        In addition to handling grievances, stewards have to handle issues like workers
compensation, which cross over from the workplace to a worker’s home, into the area of
political activity and legal disputes.
        Workers compensation was originally a political victory for workers, eliminating
the time and expense of suing your boss for an injury but many states have passed
complicated laws to make it difficult for a worker to receive the benefits.
        As a result, an active steward will provide real benefits to the membership by
paying particular attention to the workers comp issue.
        It is important that a steward should first try to minimize workers comp problems
by minimizing workplace accidents. Faced with increasing costs and pressured by
insurance carriers, some employers have actually strengthened health and safety
programs to cut down on accidents. A steward should fully participate in these programs.
        In other cases, faced with the same pressures, bosses are simply refusing to
document workplace accidents. “Stuff happens” so a steward should be ready to advise
members in case a workplace accident does occur. No matter how minor the accident
may seem, a steward must make certain that every incident is reported. A steward should
use the communications network to make certain that every member understands the
importance of registering every accident.
        Make your coworkers aware of their rights, so that they don’t give away potential
payments by minimizing an injury, by suggesting it could have happened at home or by
being convinced that it’s not “that big a deal.” Your health (and income) is a very big
deal! Don’t let a company health person convince your coworkers not to file comp
claims, even if it is clear that they were hurt at work.
        A steward should also recognize some of the hidden workplace hazards, like
stress, chemical exposure or indoor air quality that can cause a worker to miss time.
Bosses are eager to shift the cost of workplace accidents on to the worker and would
rather an injured worker use the health insurance plan and the sickness and accident
benefit rather than workers comp, which has a much higher level of payment.
        It is also essential that a steward—as the first contact point of the union
structure—make certain that a worker who is out on comp is always in contact with the
union officers. Often a company will try to take advantage of injured workers by cutting
off benefits or pressuring them to return to work before they are completely healed. It is
the union, at all levels, that should inform and protect these workers. Keep in touch—
give injured workers a call every week or so to make sure that their situation is protected.
        In addition to knowing the basic organizational problems of health and safety and
workers comp, a sharp steward will keep up with changes in laws which affect workers.
In some cases, court decisions or administrative rulings can dramatically change the ways
injured coworkers are covered.
        Since workers compensation is a state law, and laws vary greatly from state to
state, you cannot necessarily depend on your international union for legislative alerts.
        In Maryland, for example, a court decision in 1952 interpreted the state’s workers
comp law so that a worker had to suffer a disability as a result of “unusual activity”
which became known, in workers’ shorthand, as the “slip, trip, fall” standard.” If a
worker suffered an injury at work, the case had to be some specific incident, not a
cumulative wearing-down of the body. As a result, generations of workers with bad
backs, sore knees and rotting rotator cuffs could not collect workers comp.
        More importantly, stewards had to be careful to prep workers to state that they
suffered some dramatic fall at work and not a twinge at home the night before.
        In 2003, however, a claim by a school department worker who hurt her back
hauling 45-pound boxes of detergent dramatically changed workers comp coverage. The
Maryland Court of Appeals reversed precedent and allowed the worker with a bad back,
which gradually worsened over the years, to collect workers comp. With a stroke of the
judicial pen, the “slip, trip, fall” standard was eliminated. A steward who keeps up with
such changes would be able to immediately change the way workplace injuries are
        Another decision in 2005 further changed the Maryland worker’s compensation
law by awarding benefits to an undocumented worker. The Maryland Court of Appeals,
claiming that not paying required benefits to a worker would mean that the worker would
either receive no protection or would have to sue. In addition, the court stated that not
covering undocumented workers would provide an incentive (as if one is needed) for
employers to hire them.
        Workers comp issues inevitably takes a steward into politics since state laws are
very contentious. Every time a court decision favors workers, there is a flurry of political
activity to restrict protection. Any good politicians (like Anne Arundel County
Democrats!!) will look for campaign contributions by being “business-friendly,” and
workers comp is always a target. A steward should pay political attention and alert the
members to any proposed changes. Better yet, urge your union lobbyists to push for
broader coverage and higher benefits. Who needs help more than injured workers?
                                               Bill Barry
                                               Director of Labor Studies
                                               Community College of Baltimore County

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