Back in Pain – A Blog by Rob

Squeezing workers
I was shocked the first time I heard a story about someone made homeless by a work-related injury: I had always, perhaps naively, believed the system had an obligation to workers who'd hurt themselves on the job. But as I interviewed more and more people for this story, I heard too many tales of homelessness, bankruptcy, and even suicide.

One man I spoke to has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet a debilitating RSI in his arms has left him emotionally and physically worn and unable to earn money in his field. "I've been totally devastated by this," he told me. "I was homeless for a while. I lost pretty much everything you can lose."

That wasn't what Gov. Hiram Johnson had in mind for us when he called on California to create a workers' comp insurance system after he took office in 1911, though Johnson was looking out for business at least as much as for injured workers. ….

The thing about an injury that comes from your work is that it's all-consuming in its devastation. If you love what you do, your wounds divide you from your passion. And it's hard to feel good about yourself when you can't live up to your potential. If you are working to put food on the table, as most of us are, the anxiety attendant on work-related pain is a constant. …..

Fighting for care
It was late afternoon, and the plaza near Oakland City Hall bustled with people walking briskly under a gray amidwinter sky. Mike Gerson emerged from a pair of massive glass doors and sighed. A grimace appeared on the attorney's weathered face. "You see?" he asked. He'd been showing me the ropes at the East Bay's main workers' compensation court, a place where miserable-looking workers sit in a waiting room for hours while attorneys cut deals in fast-paced, acronym-laden sessions down the hall.

It's never been a real friendly place to visit: this is where injured people wind up when they're fighting for medical care or when there's a disagreement over how to settle their cases. Workers' compensation laws can confuse professionals, let alone these neophytes.
As of April 2003, there were 3.69 million active cases in the state, and a million workers file new claims each year. About 200,000 of them are in the market for an attorney each year. (The state also keeps statistics on fraud, by the way, which show that only a tiny percentage of workers are even suspected of gaming the system – along with a handful of insurance companies, doctors, and attorneys.)