Workers' comp

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

By Mark Baker

At the turn of the 20th century, Missouri, like much of the nation, found itself shifting from an agricultural to an industrial society, in most instances replacing a barter system of trade with capitalism. As new technologies and processes evolved, such as electricity and the automobile, workers found themselves among assembly lines and factory jobs, as many had left the farm in search for employment in the city.

As corporations positioned themselves to meet the growing demand for goods and services produced by new methods, they accordingly invested in and incorporated innovative machinery and honed skills within the labor force. The exploitation of human labor by corporation owners and managers has been well-documented in books such as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" along with movies like "Matewan" and "Harlan County, U.S.A." These abuses have occurred in steel and textile mills, coal mines and processing plants, to name just a few, wherein workers incurred injuries and sometimes death without any thought of restitution to them or their families.

As Missouri debated these situations, the legislature felt the need to act as a responsible mediator between the employer and employee in situations wherein employees became injured at work In 1926, Missouri enacted its first workers' compensation law, which defined the terms and conditions where employers provided treatment for those injured on the job, guaranteed at least a portion of the employee's income and, if a permanent disability resulted, disbursed an agreed-upon scheduled amount in exchange for an employee waiving his right to bring legal action against the employer through the judicial process. In other words, the employee's medical bills were paid, he was guaranteed a portion of his income while he was off work and he would be compensated for any lasting effects of the injury in a compromise that alleviated them of their right to sue the company they worked for.

This system has worked reasonably well for almost the last 80 years, until Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law Senate Bill 1 from the 2005 legislative session. This was the first bill introduced into the Senate following the opening 2005 session, and it became effective Aug. 28 of that same year.

Proponents of the changes enacted a system of fine print and loopholes that not only eliminates basic protections to injured Missourians, but it actually works to discourage anyone from venturing into the labyrinth because of the need to sue. Additionally, supporters also testified that a revision in the current statute would "stimulate economic development." Workers' compensation laws are not, and should never be, about stimulating economic development. A healthy, educated and well-trained work force will attract new business to Missouri, not the legislative return to a system that actually encourages lawsuits from employees against their employers.

It is almost a given that any and all safety manuals at any particular company have probably had their rules and guidelines drafted due to previous accidents and incidents of former employees. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers spilled their blood, broke their bodies and endured the consequences of disabling injuries often without any means to protect themselves and their families from financial ruin caused by job-related injuries and sicknesses before that compromise. Organized labor secured the 40-hour workweek, child-labor protections and overtime pay and played a huge role in the enactment of workers' compensation laws in every state across this nation.

For over eight decades, the costs of occupational injury and disease were absorbed by industry. Overnight, on Aug. 28, 2005, that changed, and working families and taxpayers now are faced with the true costs associated with those historically covered accidents which are no longer subject to workers' compensation in Missouri. This is why the Cape Girardeau Central Trades & Labor Council of Missouri, AFL-CIO, has participated in a constitutional challenge to the unfairness of those changes, and our case was recently heard by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The enactment of SB1 in the Missouri Legislature's 2005 legislative session removed the safety net which protects working families who shoulder the consequences of workplace injury. The changes made in SB1 break the eight decades old promises made by employers and render meaningless the protections which working families depend on. The citizens of Missouri deserve a law which is fair and reasonable, and which returns the system to a workable system which is predictable, discourages litigation and benefits both employers and working families. Missouri should not roll back the clock to an unprotected workforce, more and more of whom are without health insurance or a means to make ends meet when the major breadwinners are unable to work because of a devastating injury.

As the Missouri Supreme Court has before it an opportunity to restore confidence in our workers' compensation laws by declaring the 2005 legislation unconstitutional, one of Cape Girardeau's own will be weighing in on the decision. Supreme Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh sits on the court and will have to consider the plight of working families when he reaches a conclusion on this matter. Workers and their families throughout the state hope the Missouri Supreme Court restores the balance of justice for both employers and employees when they consider the impact of the workers' compensation challenge case that is currently before them.

Mark Baker is the president of the Cape Girardeau Central Trades & Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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