As the son of an aircraft mechanic, I remember my dad always telling me, “Work hard for the things you want in this life.” One day I asked him, “What do you want in life?” He told me that he wanted a roof over his family’s head, he wanted my mom to be happy and he wanted his boys to have a life better than he and his dad. I thought that sounded easy enough.
Then one morning in 1986, during my sophomore year of high school, as I was waiting for the bus, the phone rang. I heard my mom shout, “Oh no, what hospital?” She asked me to get my stuff and get in the car. You see, as my left-handed, 47-year-old dad was changing a tire on a plane, the jack broke and the wheel well came down, severing several tendons in his hand. As I went back to see him, I remember thinking, What is this going to look like? What is this going to feel like?
The fact of the matter is, I was scared, and I am still scared today. What happens when someone or something wakes you up from your dreams? That was the day that I learned what it meant to be a father and husband.
The basic premise of workers’ compensation benefits is to provide income replacement and medical care so that injured workers are not left behind while they are recuperating from their injuries. The legislatures in all 50 states have indicated how injured workers’ claims will be handled. In most states, you cannot sue your employer for economic and non-economic damages (pain and suffering), so it is rare that an injured worker can be made whole for all the losses incurred by an injury. With so many workers traveling to work in nearby states, it is increasingly important to know your rights when you get injured, because the insurance companies who are responsible for paying the benefits do.
What should I do if I get hurt on the job?
Step 1: Report what happened and all of your injuries to your employer.
When a worker gets injured, the first thing they should do is notify, preferably in writing, their supervisor or someone in human resources. They need to document not only how the injury happened, but more importantly, all the areas of the body that feel injured. Remember, you’re not a teenager anymore, so your body will respond differently to injury. It is easy to know how and when you sustained injury if it was a witnessed slip and fall or an accident by machine. But what if you work in an occupation where you do a lot of walking, or you work in a loud environment, or you sit at a desk with a headset in your ear for 30 years?
Step 2: See a doctor.
Injury is not so easily identified by you, so seeking the consultation of a physician for your symptoms can protect your dream without intention on your behalf. Many baby boomers and Generation-X workers were raised not to complain or whine about their problems. “Don’t make a big deal out of this,” is what we probably heard when faced with an issue that required us to press on for the sake of others. Therefore, most injured workers do not go and seek medical care immediately to document their injuries until it becomes obvious to them that their problems are worse than they thought. With nothing legally sophisticated about it, the insurance company now has a defense to your claim. It goes like this: “If they were as injured as they say they are, why didn’t they go to the doctor right away?” So please, go to the doctor right away.
But Matt, maybe you haven’t been keeping up with current events. My employer is one of the millions who doesn’t provide health insurance, and I can’t afford to pay for the visit. In all states, the workers’ compensation laws are designed to provide reasonable, necessary and causally-related medical care and treatment for as long as the injury requires at the expense of the workers’ compensation insurance legally required by your employer to have on your behalf. This is part of your employment package, so take advantage of it for the protection of your future.
Step 3: Get your paystubs and keep track of missed work.
After you give notice of your injuries and seek treatment from a doctor, you need to look at your prior pay for a certain period of time leading up to the accident. This will help you to get a picture of what your income replacement will look like while you are unable to work. Remember, the bill man doesn’t care that you got injured, and your responsibility to pay your personal obligations each month still exists. These benefits are called Temporary Total Disability Benefits.
In no state are temporary total disability benefits paid at 100 percent of your earnings. They are usually paid at two-thirds of your weekly pay, tax-free. Some states allow you to be paid based upon all of the jobs you may have been working at the time of your injury; some do not. Some states allow you to include your overtime worked; some do not. Although I always had the best sports equipment come the first of each basketball and baseball season, I knew it came at the expense of third shift ending and morning overtime for my dad.
It is critical you know what rights you have as you have personal obligations to satisfy based upon your ability to work. In order to receive these benefits, you will need a doctor’s note indicating what treatment is being recommended, a doctor’s note indicating that you are not able to return to your pre-injury job, and an actual medical note that indicates that your inability to work and recommended treatment is reasonable, necessary and causally related to your work accident. Without those things, or help from a lawyer that cares, your American Dream could be in jeopardy.
Recovering From a Work Injury
Has anybody been told by their employer, “Go ahead, take as much time as you need.” I believe there are some of you who have heard this, but for a great majority of workers barely able to make ends meet, that is not the case. Also, do any workers wake up healthy and say, “I hope an injury happens so that the last 22 years of my career are meaningless.” Of course not. Most—if not all—injured people want to get as good as they can get and move forward with their dreams.
However, medical care and treatment is expensive, and as we see in the news today regarding healthcare reform, this is the most important time for you. Will you be able to have all the physical therapy you need to return to your dream, and will it begin promptly? Will you be able to undergo the MRI or other diagnostic test your doctors need to determine your conditions, and will it be done promptly? Will you be able to undergo the surgery you need to return to your dream, and will it be done promptly? Will your employment be there when you do everything within your power to keep living your dream? As you can see, how quickly this happens determines the lasting effects the injury has on your abilities to live your dreams. This is often the most critical part of your claim. What you are left with are the pieces you will need help with picking up and moving on.
When some of the pieces are missing, most states allow for the workers to receive an award for the permanent affect. This is called a Permanent Partial Disability Award. Many times, the permanent effect is loss of motion, loss of function or loss of the ability to engage in a specific activity. Although each state may place different levels of importance to each, these are the most important in my opinion. These are the essential elements for survival. Without them, you cannot be part of the pack, you cannot be part of the team and you cannot be the productive member of society like you were the day before your injury. When you experience one or more of these losses or an actual loss to a part of your body, you may be entitled to an award. A majority of the states have already predetermined what your arm is worth, or what your leg is worth. Did they ask you? Did they ask you before they reduced what your arm is worth in 1999 in the District of Columbia, for example? You need every available benefit that is left to be able to move on with your dream.
Sometimes, a permanent effect of the injury is your inability to return to the same type of work that you were physically able to do before the accident. If this occurs, you may need the assistance of vocational rehabilitation. This assistance includes basic job hunting instructions like resume building and interview skills. It may include job placement into another transferable area of employment for you. It may include retraining or schooling to compete with others in today’s labor market. Whatever the assistance, remember this is your dream that will be affected. If you return to a job that pays you less than what you were making before you sustained injury, the insurance company may be required to pay permanent wage loss benefits. Most states, like the District of Columbia, allow these benefits to be paid at two-thirds of the difference, and some states, like Maryland, calculate the effect of the permanent wage loss differently. Regardless of the structure, you need to know when and how these benefits help keep your dream alive. Sadly, sometimes, the dream dies on the job.
What about the effects on my family?
In all states, your loved ones, through the workers’ compensation insurance company, have benefits available to help pay for funeral expenses and, in some cases, income replacement for dependent family members. You need to be aware that not all dreams die at the initial workplace accident. Many times, your loved one has a consequence of the initial injury or accident that results in the dream dying. This often requires me to review the medical records and speak to colleagues and other witnesses to determine if there is a causal connection. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to the answers you may need but don’t know. Remember, your loved ones’ dream includes you.
Why I Fight for Injured Workers
In 1993, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I stood there with my mom and brother and realized how lucky I was. No debt and a shiny new political science degree. Then fear set in. What did I do? I had just wasted 4 years of my dad’s hard-earned money with a degree in something I hated. You see, the degree didn’t really require a lot of hard work. It was easy. As the panic subsided, I decided to attend law school. I had no reason at the time except that I hated politics, and the only job interview I had was for selling cutlery door-to-door. So I packed up my car, kissed my girlfriend goodbye (she’s my wife now) and went to law school. I hated everything about it. There were very few people like me, I thought at the time. During my last semester, I took an elective: workers’ compensation. That will be an easy A, I said to myself. It’s just comp. At the conclusion of the 15 weeks, I was exhausted. It was the hardest class I had ever taken in my life.
At discharge from the hospital, my dad’s hand was so damaged that I thought his career was over. He was my idol. How could he curse anymore at all the young mechanics he was trying to help teach in the middle of the hangar? How would our used cars that he could always fix and keep running last? How could he support us, seeing as our private catholic school cost $1,800.00 a year? How was he going to be my dad? He missed two weeks of work, because that is how much a union mechanic got in 1986. He used the green therapy ball and grip strength device while my mom changed his bandages and he continued on.
This year, my dad turned 79 years old. He cannot do much of anything with his left hand now, he cannot walk without a walker as a result of 14-hour shifts standing and walking across miles of hangar for 30 years and he cannot hear as a result of years of making sure loud airplane engines were operating properly for the safety of the public.
So after 20 years of knowing what I know now, I asked him, “Why didn’t you make a claim for your hand?”
He told me, “Because when you’re a parent, you have to make decisions for others, not yourself.”
I told him that I would’ve protected him. We took a sip of our beers and he said, “I have no doubt you would’ve.”