by Steve Zeltzer; this article was originally published in Partisan issue no. 23, printed April 2007.
California today has more fish and game inspectors than Cal-OSHA inspectors. Lax enforcement of lax regulations means a steady toll of dead and injured workers. And when workers are injured, the workers compensation "reform" embodied in SB899 in 2004 has meant personal and financial disaster for many of them. Pushed by Republican Governor Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders at the urging of the multi-billion dollar insurance industry, the "reforms" have cut permanent disability payments to injured workers in half, while insurance corporation profits have skyrocketed. For the first time, more Workers Comp money is going to insurance company profits than for actual medical services for injured workers.
Large corporations whose operations produce particularly large numbers of injured workers, like Safeway Markets and Lowe's Hardware, have taken advantage of the "reforms" to terrorize injured workers into avoiding the Workers Comp system entirely. Safeway's William Zachary, Corporate Vice President of Risk Management, serves a dual role as the head of the California Fraud Assessment Commission (FAC), appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. The FAC provides money (now $22 million a year) to district attorneys to prosecute those accused of fraud, but it only goes after workers who claim injury. Corporations that engage in fraud against injured workers, even well-documented massive fraud, are off the hook, because the FAC refuses to pay California district attorneys to prosecute corporate fraud.
A climate of fear hurts safety
Corporate frame-ups of injured workers like Anita Blick of San Mateo County have built a climate of fear, in which more and more injured workers are afraid to file Workers Comp claims, and instead are going on state disability, or if they are seriously injured are ending up in public hospitals or getting their injuries taken care of by SSI. This massive cost shifting from the insurance companies to the public has been very profitable for the insurance companies, who are being accused of criminal conspiracy by advocates for injured workers (but not by the district attorneys who get money from the FAC).
Companies have forged papers, intimidated injured workers and their families, and freely committed perjury in workers comp cases, all with no fear of prosecution. And when the risk of paying higher premiums for maintaining an unsafe workplace diminishes, the incentive to create a safer workplace drops as well. There is a direct tie between the corporate avoidance of responsibility for injuries and increased risk of injury on the job.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the California AFL-CIO has been so tied into the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, including Don Perata and Fabian Nunez, that it has gone along with legislators in taking no effective action to kick the insurance companies out of California's medical care system, or out of the workers compensation system. It even took a "neutral" position on SB899. A single-payer health care system would do away with insurance company involvement, and cover injured workers along with all Californians, yet this is not on the agenda or website of the California AFL-CIO. Healthcare funds need to go to healthcare providers and not the pockets of billionaire insurance executives like Warren Buffet. There have been attempts to draft initiatives along these lines, but without AFL-CIO support they have been unable to progress. The Peace and Freedom Party, along with some unions and advocacy organizations for injured workers, favors such an initiative for the November 2008 ballot. Greater public understanding of the terrible effects of the present system will help that effort, and Workers Memorial Day events are part of the process of building that public awareness.
Much more information on these issues is available on the internet. See www.injuredonthejob.tv and www.ciaw.org for interviews of injured workers on the television show produced by injured sheet metal worker Sam Gold. For information on Workers Memorial Day go to www.workersmemorialday.com.
See www.bullyfreeworkplace.org for information on the damage caused by bullying in the workplace, and the fightback against it.