Monday, April 11, 2005

NC Business Leaders Invent A New Crisis

Not content with fabricating one crisis out of thin air, conservatives are creating another. This time it's the worker's compensation program.

Most of us - except for the hard-core corporatists out there - probably agree that worker's comp is a pretty good system. When someone gets injured on the job, the company pays a partial salary while the worker rehabilitates and finds a new job. If the injury is extremely debilitating, companies pay a permanent benefit. And it's valuable. Readers of Fast Food Nation will recognize how important worker's comp is for slaughterhouse workers, who work an extremely dangerous job made even more dangerous by the high throughput demanded by corporate culture and Americans' hamburger taste.

The system already has a few checks. For example, if substance abuse led to the injury, no compensation must be paid. And yet NC State Senator David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat (!), thinks it needs "fixing."

Hoyle's proposal has a few parts. First, it would use any positive alcohol or drug test as proof of impairment. Second, it would cap awards at 500 weeks (not quite 10 years) for non-life-altering injuries. Third, it would allow corporations to check the medical records of a worker's comp recipient.

The third is the most absurd - and easiest to dismantle - of the bunch. One's medical records shouldn't be invaded by anybody, least of all by a corporation who might want to "encourage" certain medical decisions. Aside from being an invasion of privacy, then, it would open the door to corruption.

The first is also a bit draconian (even by Hoyle's own admission). A drug/alcohol test is generally not administered right after the injury occurs, so how will anyone know if the test accurately reflects the worker's condition at the time of the injury?

It's the second that promises to be the main point of contention of the bill, and the one that looks most reasonable to outsiders. Ten years should be long enough for anyone without a life-altering injury to recover and find new work, right? Anyone who doesn't, therefore, must be cheating the system.

We'll ignore the fact that the system hasn't caused any businesses much difficulty - a fact that even Hoyle understands. The argument that the system is broken hinges on an idea that people don't want to find work and be self-sufficient. This is a complete misunderstanding of the American psyche - we are taught from an early age about the intrinsic value of a hard day's work. The simple truth is that most people who are on worker's comp for ten or more years can't find a job.

Take, for example, a manual laborer who gets a rotator-cuff injury. Certainly such a person could not do manual labor again. Such a person would need to find work in a different sector - but due to modern hiring practices, this is often very difficult, especially for someone with a high-school education. They could take vocational courses, but that requires money not possessed by our laborer. In short, our laborer is stuck in a sector that requires work he is no longer able to perform, and remains years from retirement and Social Security.

This is the kind of person Hoyle's bill would hurt. I don't think that's an acceptable cost for reforming a system that doesn't need fixing.


Anonymous said...

This Hoyle guy's weird. Odd thing about Worker's Comp is that it's mostly SUPPORTED by corporations. It's a more predictable cost than being sued by injured workers...and often a lower cost to the company in the aggregate.

But I suppose they're always looking for ways to spend less.....

- Ben

Mike said...

For lack of a more intelligent response, I'm going to have to go with the simple yet expressive: "Oy."