Workman’s Compensation

We are reminded on a regular basis that life is fragile and  uncertain.  The signs are everywhere.  Even in this darling little paradise in northwest Wyoming.

As I returned home with my kids from the annual community mecca in search of a warmer, moister paradise, I was not even out of the airport when I received my first great jolt of reality.  The headline in the daily paper announced that a local man had been struck and killed while riding his bicycle on Easter Sunday in Grand Teton National Park.

It was not 30 minutes later when I saw the headline of the previous week’s paper: AT REST IN MEXICO, an article describing the life and death of another member of our community, killed in a car crash on Teton Pass.

And the following day, my first day back at the stress factory, I met “Sarah Fletcher”, a woman in her late 40s.  Ten years ago Sarah had settled in a tiny Wyoming town, a transplant from the Midwest, having raised two children and a husband all by herself.  The kids were now in college, and the husband was someone else’s responsibility.  Sarah brought with her a modest savings account, and a huge, loving life force big enough to fill the entire world.

Sarah enjoyed working with people.  She had taken a job at a regional rehabilitation center in southwestern Wyoming.  Her official title was “group home specialist”, which translated to den mother for the residents of the center, a few of whom were emotionally disabled.

On a picture perfect Wyoming summer day in 1990, Sarah’s favorite patient, a 17 year old named Billy, went berserk.  Billy brutally attacked Sarah, cracking a telephone over her head, and violently kicking her in the stomach.  In less than 5 ticks of the heart Sarah’s life was forever altered.

Sarah had worked her entire adult life.  She had been the sole support for her two children, and she was helping put them through college at the time.  Sarah would not work another day.  A ventral hernia, which has to date required five surgeries, and related hypertension, a heart condition, and relentless pain, have rendered her unfit for work, even light duty work.  Fate has spoken to Sarah in stereo.

The good news for Sarah was that her injuries were covered by Worker’s Compensation.   The bad news for Sarah was that her injuries were covered by Worker’s Compensation.

What is Worker’s Compensation?  How does it work?  To whom and to what does it apply?  Have another sip on that almond licorice mocha latte and read on.

In the late 1800s industrial giants were evolving.  Railroads,  manufacturing, mining companies.  The work was incredibly dangerous, the working conditions appalling.  Not many of the worker bees had agents to negotiate handsome employment benefits such as a two week spring break, or health insurance for that matter.   When a worker was injured on the job the consequences were frequently devastating, both for the worker and his family.   Universal health care was still at least a century away.

If a worker did have the resources to hire a lawyer and sue for his injuries, the judicial climate at the time was geared toward the promotion of big business, and the worker was faced with a daunting obstacle course of legal doctrines standing between him and his ability to get a fair result.

It was a terrible situation for the worker, but it wasn’t all that great for the employer either.  Every once in a while, then as now,  the little guy slayed the giant and was awarded a large judgment against his employer which, because of a lack of insurance, was almost always paid directly out of the employer’s pocket.

Something drastic was needed to help the plight of the injured worker, and to help the individual business avoid economic uncertainty and possible doom.  Thus was born the innovative, progressive idea of workmen’s compensation, as it was first called.

The concept originated in Europe and arrived on the shores of the United States at the turn of the last century.  In 1910, New York was the first state to adopt worker’s compensation legislation. Wyoming enacted its own version in 1915.

The concept is simple.  The legislature designated an extensive list of businesses as “extra-hazardous employment”,  including mining; construction; manufacturing; printing; chemicals; heavy machinery; motor carriers; hotels; automotive repair; prisons; forestry management; health services, social services; police protection, and hundreds more.

These employers were required to pay out of their own pockets a percentage of their payroll into a newly established fund, the worker’s compensation fund.  The fund was intended to assure the “quick and efficient delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured and disabled workers” who were injured at work in jobs designated as extra hazardous employment.

In return the employee gave up his right to sue the employer for any job related injury.  It no longer mattered whether the employee was at fault, or whether the employer was at fault.  It no longer mattered how bad the working conditions were, or how responsible the employer was for causing the accident.  The employee’s sole remedy was payment through the worker’s compensation fund.

The employee is entitled to have all of his/her medical costs paid; to receive a portion of his/her wages, usually two-thirds of the weekly pay, during the period he or she is temporarily totally disabled, up to a maximum number of months, initially set at 24 months; and to receive a monetary award for permanent partial disability, or permanent total disability, or death.

The actual workplace injury is sometimes merely the first assault on the injured worker. In Sarah’s case, the Worker’s Compensation Division initially refused to pay for her surgeries, and abruptly terminated her monthly benefits for temporary total disability.  She had to hire an attorney to do battle with Worker’s Comp, which took on a life of its own for almost eight years.  She was forced to file for bankruptcy along the way, and she was recently diagnosed as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Life is uncertain, folks.  Friendship, love and inner peace are all that really matter.  Go find your mate, or best friend, and share with him or her how much you love and appreciate them.  You just never know if there will be another moment in which to do it.