Monday, December 20, 2004

Just Another Disposable Worker

Michelle Starr, a reporter for the York (PA) Daily record is running a series of articles about workplace safety and workers compensation in Central Pennsylvania.

The first story is about a woman, Aimee Clauser, who worked in an assisted care facility and injured her back attempting to keep a patient from falling.

Aimee Clauser was helping a woman regain her balance at an assisted-living facility in 1998 when the woman fell backward.

Clauser, then 19, braced herself and caught the woman’s weight but felt a strange sensation race down her back.

"I knew there was something wrong," Clauser said. "I just didn’t know quite what."
What was wrong was two herniated disks, but Clauser didn't find that out until months after being shunted off to her employer-approved physician who kept insisting it was just a strained muscle.

A series of surgeries and six years later, Clauser, a single mother with a three-year old son, was "rewarded" for her dedicationn by her employer who put her on the night shift, cut off her health care and is basing her workers comp earnings on the part-time hours she works now, instead of the full time hours she worked before her injury.

Clauser finally hired an attorney, Drew Ganning who says that her health care situation is not uncommon for workers hurt on the job:

it’s not uncommon for employers to cut off coverage when a worker is hurt on the job and their new schedule does not qualify them for benefits.

The Department of Labor and Industry doesn’t require employers to provide health insurance, and rising medical costs concern employers and workers.

Maintaining health care after an accident is a growing concern for Gannon’s clients, particularly those who are primary wage-earners.

In Clauser’s case, she tried COBRA coverage for a few months for herself and her son. That insurance is offered through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act to provide continuation of group health coverage that otherwise would be terminated.

The coverage cost of just under $300 every two weeks was just too much money. Her rent is $575 a month, and she makes $314 every two weeks.

Because she makes more than what is covered by part-time workers’ compensation, she receives no supplemental check from The Brunswick at Longstown’s insurance company for her injury.

To keep expenses down, she has postponed doctor’s visits that don’t relate to her work injury.

Clauser said it is sad to say, but the government money from Supplemental Security Income that her son receives because of a birth defect keeps the family afloat. That contributes $300 a month.

"It’s not my fault I had to go part-time,” Clauser said. “It was because of a work-related injury."
Meanwhile, one of Clauser's disks is still bulging, painfully pressing against her spinal cord.

During the last few weeks, her condition has deteriorated. She has numbness in her left leg and her left foot feels like she has an intense muscle cramp on her arch.

She suspects the bulging disk is to blame, but she’s scared to find out if the numbness means more surgeries and time away from earning money.

Clauser doesn’t want to go to the doctor.

"I don’t want to know,” she said.


This story is like deja vu for me. In 1998, when Clauser suffered her injury, I was working on the federal ergonomics standard at OSHA. We were inundated with stories like Clauser's -- women and men suffering preventable life-changing injuries that could have been prevented if their employers had taken some basic precautions that the ergonomics standard would have required. Many of those workers traveled to Washington D.C. -- some in severe pain -- to testify at OSHA hearings in early 2000 and to tell their stories to their Congressional representatives. The ergonomics standard was finally issued -- after ten years of struggle -- in November 2000.

But it turns out that most of their Senators and Congressmen didn't really care about the Aimee Clausers of this country. After a few hours of debate, Congress voted to repeal the ergonomics standard in March 2001, and the repeal bill was the first major piece of legislation signed by the newly selected President, George W. Bush. Even Clauser's "moderate, labor-friendly" Senator, Arlen Specter, didn't have the balls to support the standard.

Meanwhile, back injuries and other ergonomic hazard continue to account for one-third of all worker injuries in this country and by far the leading cause of injury for health care workers like Aimee Clauser, who this administration apparently considers disposable. OSHA has issued fewer than two dozen citations for ergonomic hazards in the past four years.