Sunday, September 5, 2010

Workers' troubles are often disdained by the politicians who represent them

(Here is my Labor Day Weekend column, a final installment on the workers' compensation system in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt workers' compensation laws.)

What is it about working people that prompts such disdain, even contempt, from politicians whose job it is to represent them? It’s a good question to ask on a labor day weekend.

GOP guru and philosopher Newt Gingrich had this to say about workers’ compensation back when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “If you’re not at work, why are we paying you? It’s not called a vacation fund.”

Let’s fast-forward to this year’s debate over a similar issue--extending unemployment benefits to the millions of U.S. workers facing the wolf at the door as a result of losing their jobs in the Wall Street-and-Bush-caused recession. Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp, one of a solid flank of Republicans who successfully fought off the extension at least four times, had the following to say:

“We have continued to extend … unemployment compensation so long that there’s disincentives for people to actually re-enter the workforce or go out and look for a job. And this is creating a culture of dependence which we do not need. We want people out there scraping and clawing and looking for work and not just sitting back waiting.”

If you’ve been injured as a result of your job, do you feel now what you need most is a “vacation fund”? If you are one of the many who’ve lost their jobs and are having a hard time finding another, do you feel like you’re part of the “culture of dependence”?

When I recently wrote about a study showing a profound pro-employer tilt in Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation Commission’s decisions on workplace injuries, I received letters from across the state decrying what one writer called a “pitiful” system that penalizes workers who get injured. My column was “only the tip of the iceberg,” another writer said.

The column described a study ordered by Jackson, Miss., attorney Roger Doolittle that showed the commission’s three members rejected administrative law judge decisions favoring workers between 75 and 91 percent of the time. Commission Chairman Liles Williams admitted to me his own numbers show he votes for the employer 59 percent of the time.

Letter writers, requesting anonymity in order not to put at risk ongoing cases, told of injuries that reduced annual wages of $30,000-plus to “zero in one day,” of employers who simply refused to carry workers’ compensation insurance and were allowed to get away with it, of major corporations that hire outside agencies to administer their policies and thus be able to dismiss claims routinely and with impunity.

“I do not believe the public has a clue what’s going on,” one writer told me.

Attorneys who represent injured workers joined together this month to demand that the state Legislature stop dragging its feet on a proposed investigation of the commission and its rulings. State House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton, Miss., who held a hearing on the issue a year ago, told me last month that any investigation remains “in limbo” because the opposing sides are so far apart.

Statistics show six million U.S. workers suffer on-the-job injuries every year, and more than 6,000 of them die. Tens of thousands suffer life-debilitating diseases and even death as a result of being exposed to toxic workplace chemicals or other materials.

The state of Mississippi has never felt compelled to track such statistics particularly well, but I keep a folder of clippings that tell the story, and it’s an old one. There was Phillip Cason Hosch, 29, who died in an explosion at the Mueller Copper Tube plant in Fulton, Miss., in 2009. Then there was construction worker Eleazar Casiano, 20, who was killed when a 10-foot sewer trench collapsed on top of him in Harrison County, Miss., in 2006. And let’s not forget sawmill worker Andrew Lee Byrd, 46, who got trapped in a wood chipper at V&B’s International Inc. in Port Gibson, Miss., way back in 2004. “He was a good fella,’ Byrd’s sister said. “He loved fishing.”

These are a few of the people behind the statistics. I’ll bet they weren’t looking for a “vacation fund” or a handout. They were just doing their jobs, and they paid a mighty high price for it.

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