Describe the struggle that you have faced as an injured worker in the workers’ compensation system.
It all started in 1999 when I was on a work call as a union stagehand at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and was injured due to the carelessness of another employee. I was taken by ambulance directly from work to the emergency room and diagnosed with multiple injuries. I immediately encountered nothing but hostility from my employer. The Flamingo denied me care for all injuries except the least serious, a sprained ankle. I was stunned as I saw the measures my employer was willing to go to in order to avoid legal responsibility to compensate me for my injury and loss of work. They set up surveillance, convinced intimidated employees to testify against me, and continually used dishonest and sophisticated legal tactics to discredit my character. I have taken my employer to court (under Nevada State law) and it has been a constant ongoing struggle to obtain timely access to medical care and treatment, lost wage compensation, and other important basic benefits. Over the last 14 years, every win has resulted in the employer creating new legal schemes to simply frustrate and deny my access to the reasonable benefits ordered by the court.
When you are healthy on day one, injured on day two, denied on day three, and headed into financial ruin on day four, the focus on recovery is overridden by the employers’ attempts to intimidate, and you start to accumulate emotional baggage, a new form of injury that is like torture and all driven by the process. This needs to be stopped! Everyone talks about health and safety in terms of worker injuries and illnesses but what people don’t realize is that the workers’ comp system itself is sick. Once an injured/ill worker is forced into the system, the process discourages basic healing and induces psychological trauma for the worker, while posing no risk to employer/insurer perpetrators.
I receive some wage replacement benefits from the workers’ compensation system but it is incredibly inadequate and my recovery has been further impeded as my income dropped dramatically. This made it hard for me to support my family. I was especially devastated that I could not properly support my mother in what should have been her Golden Days.
I was angry at how the system treated me but I knew that I needed to manage that anger for the sake of my own peace of mind. For me, knowing who I was was really important. All I could do was to continue telling the truth and to know that I was not the liar and criminal my employer tried to make me out to be. During the hardest times, I hoped I could depend on my family and friends, but their help and support could only extend so far and they were no more equipped to deal with the broken workers’ comp system than I was. I went to my union, but they didn’t seem able to offer me any support other than to say, “Good Luck with that, let us know how it works out!” I went to my legislators, most of whom did not understand the issues and they treated me like someone begging for money. It became important to me to take pause when I was venting to think about what I was saying and why I was saying it, and to listen to the response and feedback I was getting. Making sure my venting and comments were purposeful, accurate, and on point made it a lot harder for legislators to just blow me off and disregard the seriousness of my concern.
Your experience illustrates how hard it is for injured workers to find the facts, tools, and support they need to successfully navigate both the healing process and the workers’ comp system. How have you used your personal experiences to help other workers who are mistreated in the comp system?
One of the things I kept running into when I looked for support while navigating the workers’ comp system was that many people took the approach that “it’s your problem, not mine”. So I started up an organization called Nevada Voters Injured at Work as I knew people needed a place to come to that would provide them with access to the basic facts early on so they could be properly prepared and form a plan of action. Injured and ill workers need to know from the very start just how much the deck is stacked against them in our current workers’ compensation systems. As I got more active, I started giving unions my number as a helpline for injured workers. I wanted to offer people information and a place to vent, but I also wanted to show them that the most concrete way to ensure workers comp laws are pro-worker is to select and influence their own legislators. So when I get calls the only thing I really ask is that you be or become registered to vote and you know who your legislative representatives are.
What do you feel are the fundamental problems with workers’ comp? What can we do to bring about pro-worker change?
One of the primary issues is that the incentive to contain costs leads profit seeking employers and insurance companies to create circumstances in the system that allow them to cheat workers out of reasonable access to their benefits while at the same time discounting the value of human life.
Another problem I see in our current system is that injured workers become trapped in a system that allows employers to rigorously question their integrity without allowing wrongly accused workers to sue insurers and employers who deliberately malign them and withhold funds for their medical recovery. If employers/insurance companies fraudulently deny claims that are legitimate, they should be held legally, fiscally, and ethically accountable. There needs to be a real downside risk associated with the creation and participation in these hostile and psychologically torturous forms of conduct!
A key issue to consider is the need to integrate the discourse on health and safety with that of workers’ compensation. We do need strong preventive measures to ensure that workers do not get injured or fall ill at the workplace but when this does happen, there must be a strong rights-based system of support for injured and ill workers. These conversations are integrally connected and need to be given equal weight and respect.
The greatest challenge in organizing and fighting back against the horrors of workers’ compensation is to overcome injured workers’ isolation. Nobody understands the dysfunction of the system better than them, but a lot of their effort is necessarily focused on their own recovery. I think we can draw a parallel to the fight for more humane conditions for the mentally ill; it is possible that those who were ill and mistreated might not have been successful in their fight for basic rights if they had stood alone, but when concerned family members and others who cared about them joined them in their struggle, they were able to instigate change. This is what we need to do for injured workers; we need to convince healthy workers and others that this is their fight too – that a workplace injury could happen to anyone and when there is no adequate protection everyone is at risk. Only once we raise awareness that the workers’ comp system poses a threat to everyone can we mobilize the power we need to stand up against those who keep using the system to hurt workers for the sake of profit or any other type of gain.