Lynch Ryan's weblog about workers' compensation, risk management, business insurance, workplace health & safety, occupational medicine, injured workers, insurance webtools & technology and related topics

March 31, 2006

When Normal Life becomes "Mission Impossible"

Last June during the filming of Mission Impossible 3, Steven Scott Wheatley, a Hollywood stuntman, was standing near a Chevy Suburban that was supposed to be blown up by a missile. The device planted in the vehicle detonated prematurely and Wheatley was burned over 60% of his body. He is now suing Paramount Pictures, Tom Cruise's production company (Cruise/Wagner) and the independent contractors responsible for pyrotechnics, alleging that their negligence caused him "severe personal injury."

It's worth taking a few moments to read through the actual text of the lawsuit, filed by his attorneys at Federico C. Sayre. Among other charges, Wheatley alleges that the above parties failed to hold safety meetings and training in the use of pyrotechnics. (How many film crews actually meet that California-OSHA standard?) They failed to inspect unsafe conditions. He points to the parties's "undelegable duties" in performing an "abnormally dangerous activity." He also says that they willfully and knowingly placed a defective device in the vehicle. The law itself dictates the language of his accusations - they are trying to prove negligence. I suspect that in the pressure-packed world of film-making, safety violations are routine and "negligence" is as common as cliches in the dialogue.

Comp Pays First
Wheatley is employed by Entertainment Partners. We can assume that he is collecting workers comp for his injuries: his medical bills are being paid and he is receiving 2/3 of his average weekly wage, up to the CA maximum of $728 - although the maximum probably falls well below what Wheatley usually draws as a stuntman. (The CA maximum wage, while signficantly higher than it used to be, is still among the lowest of the major industrial states.)

Wheatley's own employer was not responsible for the injuries. With so many business entities involved, the door to third party liability is wide open. Unlike workers comp, which narrowly defines available benefits, Wheatley is able to sue for pain and suffering, for his inability to manage his home, to show love and affection to his children, and literally, to make love to his wife. In addition, his wife is able to sue for her own (considerable) mental anguish and damages. While his workers comp claim probably runs in the middle to high six figures, the tort liability will likely be in the multiple millions.

Comp vs. Tort Liability
This case brings into stark relief the differences between workers comp and tort liability. Under comp, no matter how severe the injuries, no matter how long the recovery period, benefits are limited to lost wage recovery (up to the fairly low ceiling in CA), medical bill and pharmacy coverage (100%), and some scarring and disfigurement benefits. Comp literally does not contemplate pain and suffering, nor does it recognize the suffering of the family. It's "no fault." While employer negligence might result in some relatively modest penalties, for the most part, it simply doesn't matter.

In trying to prove negligence, Wheatley's lawyers do not necessarily have a slam dunk. Was the device in fact defective? Did someone know that it was likely to fail? Could anyone have prevented the accident? Did Wheatley in any way contribute to the danger? In the world of comp, these questions are irrelevent. The injury occurred at work and is surely work-related. How much Wheatley ultimately collects will be determined by the skill of his attorneys, matched by the plaintiff's formidable legal team.

I expect that the lawyers will come to some agreement prior to trial, settling the case without any finding of negligence. For lawyers, it's mission possible: coming up with a hefty dollar figure that makes the problem go away. For Wheatley and his family, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, it's truly mission impossible: trying to salvage a quality life from the ruins of a single moment on the job.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 9:11 AM Link to, Comment (1), or E-mail this post
March 30, 2006

The odds of health care quality

DB's Medical Rants discusses an L.A. Times article that reports on a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine about quality of health care. The study shows that, rich or poor, most people only get the right medical care about 50% of the time. This study didn't deal with access of care; rather, it looked at the care that is provided.

"Recommended care included things that have been scientifically shown to be medically effective and are accepted as the best standard for various conditions. The researchers looked at 439 such measures of quality for 30 common medical conditions and preventive care.
For example, after a patient has a heart attack, doctors should prescribe a beta blocker, a follow-up treatment shown to save lives, but they do so only half the time. An anti-inflammatory steroid inhaler is the first line of treatment for someone with asthma, yet only one in two asthmatics receive a prescription when they need it. And patients have about a 50% chance of getting the right diagnostic test if they have pneumonia."

Fragmentation is one of the primary reasons for the breakdown in quality that the study cites. Most people have mutiple physicians and see a variety of specialists in the course of receiving care, The study is interesting in and of itself, and DB's comments about the survey were also noteworthy:

"... patients generally benefit when one physician understands their problems and manages all those problems. Yet our reimbursement system provides incentives against that rational system. Subspecialists can care for a single problem and receive the same (or greater) reimbursement for a visit.

If we want better quality, we must understand and learn how much time good quality takes. It will take more time for each visit, but I believe that time (and appropriate reimbursement) will be the key factor in improving health care. No other profession works under, or is asked to work under, such severe time pressures."

It would be interesting to see how a similar health care quality study in the context of workers compensation would play out. The playing field is level among patients since work-related injuries are all covered by the same benefits, at least on a state by state basis. However, physician reimbursement is discounted right from the get-go, and networks often demand further discounts on top of that - hardly an incentive system designed to foster quality. The conventional wisdom would generally support the idea that an expert primary physician would produce the best outcomes. Fragmentation of care can be a significant issue, and it would appear that case management has evolved largely to address this and to ensure continuity of care, to expedite the recovery process, and to foster good communication across multiple providers.

Discounts continue to be one of the primary attributes that employers use as a purchasing criteria for medical care. If one accepts the premise that quality care translates to better outcomes - recovery and the return to work - then it would seem in everyone's best interests to ensure quality. To ask physicians to do more -- as they must by the very nature of workers compensation -- and to do it for less seems like the wrong way to go about ensuring quality. Minimizing costs in workers compensation is largely contingent on aligning incentives for all participants - physicians are no exception.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:52 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 28, 2006

News roundup: fraud, health care, compliance, and "quit complaining about your job!"

Premium fraud - Misclassifying your employees can get you in trouble. Just ask the executives of Mayer Roofing, a southern California company that is facing a charge of premium fraud for allegedly listing workers as managers to get more favorable rates. Historically, this is one of the largest cases of premium fraud - the premium that was bilked may reach as high as $4.5 million.

Health care costs - A survey of 500 small business owners in California indicates that health care tops list of business woes. The cost and availability of health care was of concern to 91% or respondents, topping workers comp and government regulations in terms of worrisome issues.

California - Joe Paduda looks at why California's workers comp injury rate is dropping and the effect on rates: "California's workers comp rate roller-coaster looks to be poised to make another steep drop. The combination of the national decrease in claims frequency and the impact of reforms have led to drastic decreases in comp rates, with more likely on the way."

Compliance - When companies get big fines for safety or labor violations, these fines make headlines. But what gets little follow-up attention is how these fines are frequently uncollected or bargained down to a fraction of the original levy. Jottings By an Employer's Lawyer points us to a recent story on how corporations regularly avoid large, highly publicized penalties for wrongdoing. Here's an excerpt:

When nuclear labs around the country were found exposing workers to radiation and breaking other safety rules, assessments totaling $2.5 million were quickly ordered.
A gas pipeline company was fined $3 million after a gasoline spill and explosion in Washington state killed three young people. The penalty later was reduced by 92 percent.
When coal firms' violations were blamed for deaths, injuries and risks to miners from Alabama to West Virginia, companies were slapped with more than $1.3 million in penalties.
What happened next with these no-nonsense enforcement measures? Not much. The pipeline tab was eventually reduced by 92 percent, the labs' assessments were waived as soon as they were issued and the mine penalties largely went unpaid.

Jordan Barab tackles the accountability issue - or lack thereof - in his recent post on the anniversary Of The BP refinery explosion that Killed 15. How much of the $21.3 million fine will BP actually pay for violations that led to this tragedy?

It is apparently a week for anniversaries of work fatalities. March 27 was the 10-year anniversary of an explosion at the Beta Steel Mill in Indiana which killed 3 workers and injured 7 others. 'We’ve never forgotten' takes a look back at the tragedy and its aftermath.

Blogs - Workers Work is an interesting blog that covers a grab bag of work-related topics. Examples of recent posts include such interesting stories as 10% of telecommuters work nude and Jobs where women make more money than men.

Short takes:

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 5:16 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 24, 2006

Avian Flu: Unprepared for What Isn't Coming?

We have been tracking the Avian flu pandemic - fearfully awaiting the widespread outbreak of a killer virus. Now it appears that it might not be coming, at least not from the H5 virus that has been decimating flocks of birds. According to Nicholas Wade's article in today's New York Times, two researchers have concluded that the avian flu virus is unlikely to become the next pandemic. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist in Japan, and Thijs Kuiken, in Rotterdam, have published their findings in Nature and Science, respectively.

That's the good news. The bad news, of course, is that some form of pandemic is inevitable and the world is unlikely to be prepared. Scientists can only guess which virus will mutate into an easily transmissable form. Fortunately for all of us, H5 at this point needs to lodge in the lower lung, which is difficult for the virus to reach. That explains why the 187 victims to date had to live in such close proximity to the infected birds. So if you are prone to sleeping with a bunch of chickens, you are still at risk. The family members sleeping in other rooms probably are not.

Even if the sky is not falling, there is little room for complacency. The scientists quoted in the article are not pleased with the current state of preparation for a flu pandemic. They think it's a good idea to anticipate the worst, even if it comes from a source other than Avian flu. There will indeed be a next time - it's not a matter of if, but when. So let's breathe a collective sigh of relief, and then get moving immediately on coordinated planning for the next pandemic.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 3:26 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 23, 2006

Health wonks rule

Grab a cup of coffee and drop by Kate Steadman's place over at Healthy Policy blog to read the third edition of Health Wonk Review. Kate does a stellar job explaining why health wonks often don't get the recognition they are due. There's a great collection of wonky posts from the brightest in the blogosphere. If you care about health care issues, be there or be square.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:07 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post

Washington passes "Safe Patient Handling" legislation

Few think of health care as one of the nation's most hazardous professions, but there you have it: nurses, nursing home attendants, and other health care workers are among the nation's most frequently injured work population, suffering from a high incidence of musculoskeletal injuries. Patient care calls for frequent lifting and moving, and this wreaks havoc with the back and shoulders. It's estimated that as many as 12 to 18% of all nurses stop practicing due to chronic back pain. The nursing shortage means that many health care workers have to do more with less, increasing the likelihood of injury; ironically, these injuries may be a primary culprit in exacerbating the nursing shortage.

Not to mention the hazards to the patient. When you are at your most vulnerable, do you really want a single nurse to be heaving you about? Bill Cosby used to have a stand-up routine about how you never wanted to hear a doctor say "oops." Similarly, When you are taking your first steps after major surgery, you don't really want the nurse who is helping you to say "ouch" - a helper who is writhing in pain may not be in your best interests.

Legislators in Washington - prompted by the Washington State Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 141 and Service Employees International Union 1199NW - just passed a Safe Patient Handling law that requires hospitals to provide mechanical lift equipment for the safe lifting and movement of patients. According to Occupational Hazards:

"On a timeline between Feb. 1, 2007, and Jan. 30, 2010, Washington hospitals must take measures including implementation of a safe patient handling policy and acquisition of their choice of either one readily available lift per acute-care unit on the same floor, one lift for every 10 acute-care inpatient beds or lift equipment for use by specially trained lift teams."

In August, we reported on Texas legislation that required nursing homes and hospitals to implement safe patient handling and movement programs. Most importantly, both laws have provisions that protect health care workers from reprisals should they refuse to perform patient handling that they deem potentially harmful to themselves or their patients.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:02 AM Link to, Comment (2), or E-mail this post
March 21, 2006

The Looming Shadow of the Uninsured

The National Coalition on Health Care reports that the percentage of Americans with insurance is declining and is now at the lowest level in more than a decade. The lack of insurance has powerful implications for adults and children alike, but given The Insider's focus on the workplace, we'll limit our discussion to the workers who lack insurance.

In 2003, 27 million workers were uninsured. This is a vast understatement, of course, because it does not take into account the millions of undocumented workers who not only lack health insurance, but all other benefits that accrue to normal employees. The 27 million is probably closer to 35 or even 40 million. In any event, there a number of reasons why working people don't have insurance: it might not be offered by the employer (increasingly prevalent among small employers and certain large employers with whom Insider readers are quite familiar); they cannot afford the coverage that is offered by the employer (high premiums, high co-pays, high deductibles); they don't qualify for coverage (part-timers); or they have moved from job to job and are outside the vesting period for coverage.

Whatever the reason, there are millions of workers without health insurance. We can safely assume that these people ignore most preventative health measures: annual check ups, regular medication for ongoing conditions, etc. They postpone treatment as long as possible, and straggle into emergency rooms when they can no longer stand the pain or discomfort. So what? Why would an employer care about these "non-work related" conditions?

The Workers Comp Intersection
It's pretty easy to imagine the circumstances where these uninsured employees may find themselves on workers comp: first, poor health can make concentration difficult; people suffering from untreated conditions are at risk for making mistakes on the job. To cite an extreme example, an employee with an untreated seizure disorder is at very high risk for injury. Equally important, these people may lack health insurance, but most have a generous indemnity plan, one which comes with no co-pays, deductibles or premiums for the employee. In other words, while health care coverage is declining, workers comp is virtually universal. If you work for someone, you're covered.

I am not suggesting that employees lacking health insurance will go out of their way to find ways of filing comp claims. After all, the health condition would have to be work-related to qualify under comp. Few conditions would meet that standard. No, I'm not concerned about fraud, but about safety. I spent a few days last week at a pipe manufacturing plant, where molten scrap metal was poured into molds to make water and sewer pipe. As I watched the ironworkers tend the molds and machines, I wondered how well they could concentrate if, for example, they suffered from an untreated ulcer, or a cataract, a bum knee or the onset of diabetes. With most physically demanding jobs, one moment of inattention, one distraction, is enough to cause serious and occasionally catastrophic injury. The margin of error for many workers is very small indeed.

All of which leads me to a fundamental question: how can a company establish a credible safety program if their employees lack basic health insurance? No safety protocol can anticipate the impact of undetected personal health problems on the employee's ability to perform the work safely.

There are many dimensions to the health care debate, most of which are far beyond the scope of this blog. But I am struck by this conundrum: safe workplace programs assume that workers are healthy enough to perform the work. If there is no health insurance, for whatever reason, how can you be sure that your employees can perform the work safely? Under OSHA's General Duty Clause (Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act), employers must furnish employment and a place of employment "which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees . . ." As the number of uninsured workers grows each year, the risk of serious injury grows with them. Eventually, this country will probably find the will and the resources to solve this problem. In the meantime, let this be warning to the myriad employers who cannot or will not provide health insurance to their employees.


Thanks to our vigilant colleague, Joe Paduda, for his heads up on this data.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 1:30 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 20, 2006

News updates: industry buzz, Kansas legislation, eye safety, and more

Industry buzz - Is there a St. Paul Travelers and Zurich merger afoot? Despite a recent Wall St. Journal article saying this was under discussion, the companies say no. Something to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, Joe Paduda tells us that long-time CEO of the Louisiana Workers Compensation Commission (LWCC) Steve Cavanaugh is moving to a start-up in Texas, and Kristen Wall, LWCC's current COO will be taking the helm.

Eye safety - March has been designated as Workplace Eye Health and Safety Month by Prevent Blindness America, who tell us that more Than 36,000 employees injured their eyes at work seriously enough to require time off. Manufacturing or production jobs had the highest eye injury rates, followed by installation, maintenance and repair, and construction. Most of these injuries were preventable with the proper eye protection.

Kansas and pre-existing conditions - last week, the Kansas House narrowly passed a bill that would reduce worker benefits and it is awaiting gubernatorial action. The major changes in the law revolve around pre-existing injuries. There is already a law that allows employers to adjust claims based on pre-existing injuries, but the new law would require less proof from employers. Opponents say this would penalize workers and would lead to dueling doctors and increased litigation. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is an opponent, and is on record saying the bill goes too far toward stripping employee rights, so we will see if she adds her signature or vetoes the hotly contested bill.

Work fatalities - Tina at Confined Space brings us the The Weekly Toll.

Resources

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 9:34 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 16, 2006

A Footnote on the Road to Oblivion

The Insider often looks at risk management issues from a personal perspective. It's one thing to talk about confined spaces, ladder safety and personal protective equipment, and quite another to look at the myriad decisions we make from day to day that might have a lasting impact on our lives. Lift a box carelessly, you might face years of back problems. Forget to ask a subcontractor for a certificate of insurance, you might own the sub's mistakes. And climb behind the wheel of your car after too many drinks, you crank up the engine and drive straight to oblivion.

We have been following the saga of Thomas Wellinger, a software account executive at Unigraphics Solutions in Michigan. He was driving 70 miles per hour in a 40 mph zone when he plowed into a car stopped for a left turn. He did not touch his brakes. His car demolished a small sedan, instantly killing a wife and her two sons. Wellinger's blood alcohol level at the time was an astonishing .43. The biggest mystery is how he was able to function at all after that much drinking. Indeed, he put in a few hours at the office prior to the crash. He was either very good at masking his intoxication, or his fellow employees were so engaged in work that they somehow failed to notice his state. Then again, maybe they just thought in passing that Tom was hitting the bottle again.

Much about this sad saga is still unresolved, but we do know where Wellinger is going to be for the next few decades. The 49 year old pled no contest to three counts of second degree murder and will be sentenced to 19 + years in prison. Take a few moments to read about his victims. A once talented and generous family lies in ruins. Having survived the crash, Wellinger will have the leisure (that's not exactly the right word) to contemplate how his drinking binge brought a sudden end to a wonderful family, along with his own career and his freedom.

In the coming months we will learn whether his auto insurer, Home-Owners Insurance, successfully cancelled his policy two days prior to the accident. Our many readers in the insurance field know that this will come down to following state procedures to the letter: providing notice to the client in the right form at the right time. We often see judges bend the rules to bring insurers and their deep pockets into the situation. We'll also learn whether Wellinger's employer knew about his drinking on that particular day. If a supervisor or manager was aware of his intoxicated state and did nothing to stop him from driving away, the company will be hammered under their liability policy.

The courts will ultimately put a dollar figure on this sad story, but the story itself transcends finance. There is no indication that Wellinger was a bad person or that he ever intended to harm anyone. Not many people end up in prison for their poor judgment behind the wheel. With Wellinger's stiff sentence, he will meet a lot of folks who harmed and killed others intentionally, with hardly a second thought. I wonder how they will view Wellinger and his week-long binge to oblivion.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:26 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 14, 2006

Keeping the multicultural workforce safe

Occupational Hazards features an article about the challenges an organization faces in ensuring safety for a multicultural workforce. Often, workers from other countries or workers who don't speak English may not know their rights, may be intimidated about speaking up or asking questions, or may not understand job instructions or job safety training.

Notwithstanding the fact that many immigrant workers, hungry for any job they can find, gravitate toward the most dangerous occupations and industries, foreign-born workers tend to bring minimal knowledge of safety practices and procedures to the job.
"In Vietnam, there's no protection at work at all," says Ngoc Huynh, coordinator of the Community Awareness Campaign on Occupational Safety, a Falls Church, Va.-based organization that educates Vietnamese workers about occupational safety and health. "They get used to it. When they get here, the most important thing to them is earning money, and they'll take whatever job they can earn money from."

The article discusses various ways that organizations are coping with this in safety training programs. We've discussed these issues in prior posts: Mandatory English at the workplace?; When it comes to safety, make sure you speak the same language; Qualified Interpreters can save lives; Cutural competence in healthcare and beyond.

Here are some multilingual resources that might assist in training:
Multilingual Health & Safety Resources and Workplace Health and Safety Worker Training Materials: An Electronic
Multilingual Resource List
(PDF) - Prepared by the Labor Occupational Health Program Center for Occupational and Environmental Health University of California at Berkeley.

OSHA in Spanish and compliance assistance materials or Hispanic employers and workers.

NIOSH in Spanish
CDC in Spanish and CDC information in various other languages

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) is accessible in French and Spanish

Food Safety - Multilingual Resources - Signs and poster, fact sheets, brochures, guides, logs, forms, checklists, manuals in a wide variety of languages.

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work - translations available for some posted materials

MSDS Hazardous Substance Sheets in Spanish - from New Jersey's Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) Program

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 11:41 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 13, 2006

News roundup: pandemics, employment law, immigrants, HR blogs

Flu pandemic - Michael Fitzgibbon at Thoughts from a Management Lawyer asks what your business plan is should a flu pandemic hit. As a denizen of Toronto, a city that faced the SARS outbreak, he is perhaps more sensitized to the potential impact on business than many of us here in the States. He points to a study conducted by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry's London Business Panel, in which 23% of respondents admitted their business would not be able to survive for three-months if their customer base were disrupted by a pandemic. More than one fifth said that they would no longer be able to operate their business model if between 10 and 30 per cent of staff became unavailable for work.

What exactly constitutes a pandemic? See some definitons via Google.

Actuarial News reports that the Society of Actuaries is beginning research on pandemic influenza and the U.S. insurance industry’s preparedness. Results from this research initiative will be made available during the SOA's Spring Health Meeting in June in Hollywood, Fla.

We've previously discussed flu pandemics:
Preparing for Avian Flu
Avian Bird Flu: When Second Class Workers Meet a First Class Hazard

Employment law - George's Employment Law Blawg has a pair of interesting items this week: Is Your Company A Target for A Discrimination Class Action Suit? Ten Factors to Consider and Top 6 Things You Should Know About Employment Law. And Judge Robert Vonada at Pennsylvannia Workers Compensation Journal (PAWC) points us to an article in The Legal Intelligencer about a case argued in the state's supreme court involving geography and light duty. At issue is whether an employer can terminate the benefits of a claimant when an offer of light duty has been extended, but the employee has moved out of the geographic area.

Immigrant workers
At Working Immigrants, Peter Rousmaniere offers a summary of the Pew Report on the Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.. The data has been updated since 2005. And Disabled Worker Law Blog discusses the Balbuena decision holding that a worker's status as an illegal immigrant is not a bar to receiving benefits for lost wages in a personal injury law suit. Troy Rosasco discusses why he sees this as the most important labor decisions that will come down this year.

Best of the Bloggers We are pleased to be included in Human Resource Executive's list of the Best of the HR blogs, a roundup by Christopher Cornell, who states "Human resource Web logs are popping up everywhere. We scoured the net to find the best, most informative examples." You have to complete a free registration to read the article, but this registration gives you access to this and other worthwhile HR content.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 7:26 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 10, 2006

Trouble in Neverland

If you had asked me to guess which celebrity was facing a stop work order and fine for failure to pay workers comp, I don't think Michael Jackson would have been at the top of my list, but there you have it. Who says nothing exciting ever happens in workers comp?

Yesterday, the Ferris wheel and carousel were shut down and the gates of the 2,600-acre ranch closed and locked. Apparently the golden-gloved boss hasn't paid his 69 employees since December, and his workers comp policy lapsed in early January. California 's Department of Industrial Relations has imposed fines of $1,000 per employee and his employees will not be allowed to work until he he secures a workers comp policy.

And of course, there's the small matter of the elephants, giraffes, orangutans and assorted other exotic animals in the Jackson menagerie that will need to be fed and cared for. I wonder what types of claims, if any, the ranch has experienced in the past? Tiger maulings and monkey bites are not standard claims fare, but they do occur in the course and scope of employment. Of course, many may remember that Michael Jackson himself experienced a rather terrible work-related injury a number of years ago.

There's an object lesson for all employers here: states are very serious about workers comp coverage, and if you are in arrears, more and more states are getting aggressive about applying stop work orders. Small contractor or celebrity - if you don't have workers comp, it's a level playing field

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:12 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 9, 2006

New Health Wonk Review posted at THCB

The biweekly roundup of the best blogging about health care policy, business, and technology - Health Wonk Review - is freshly posted at Matthew Holt's The Health Care Blog. With more than 57% of the claims dollar now spent on medical benefits rather than indemnity, the trends and costs of health care are worth watching. In terms of the total health care market, workers comp only represents about 3% - a mere whisper - so it's worth keeping an eye on the 300 pound gorilla in the room.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 6:56 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 8, 2006

The Wobblies Versus Starbucks, revisited: Chalk One Up for the Union

The U.S. Labor Relations Board issued a finding in favor of the IWW ("Wobblies), in their ongoing effort to organize Starbuck baristas (employees). No, this does not mean that Starbucks has been unionized, or even that an election will take place any time soon. In agreeing to the finding, Starbucks does not admit any fault. However, they have agreed to take a limited number of corrective actions, including:

· The reinstatement of two IWW members, Sarah Bender and Anthony Polanco, who had been discharged for their union activity. Bender's back pay totals a little over $1,600, with about $50 in interest. Polanco receives $58.87 in back pay, plus $1.99 in interest.

· Starbucks is rescinding its policy that prohibited the sharing of written union information and joining the union on company property. (As we pointed out in our previous blog, Starbuck's lounge chairs are an excellent place to sit and discuss union strategy.)

· Starbucks has agreed to rescind its national "no-pin" policy. Workers had been banned from wearing IWW pins and had been sent home from work without pay for refusing to take them off. (The agreement does not stipulate whether body piercings containing union logos are acceptable. I await a clarification.)

· Starbucks has agreed to end threats, bribes, and surveillance of union members. (The company apparently did try to promote some organizers, in exchange for their dropping all union activity.)

The full text of the agreement is available here. This document provides a valuable summary of the kinds of union activities that are still protected by law. It's worth a look.

I'm not sure where this victory stands in the historic struggle for worker rights, but congratulations to the IWW are in order. I would point out that the interest that Polanco received on his back pay ($1.99) will not buy him a latte at Starbucks. If he wants to celebrate with a cup of coffee, he'll have to go somewhere else.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 4:34 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 7, 2006

Blogging in Bentonville

As part of its public relations offensive, Wal-Mart has taken to the blogwaves. They are encouraging bloggers sympathetic to their cause to publish positive news about the ubiquitous company. According to an article by Michael Barbaro in today's New York Times, the bloggers are using the tidbits, but not necessarily identifying the source.

Here's a sample: One blogger in Iowa wrote that a new Wal-Mart opening in Illinois had received 25,000 applications for 325 jobs. "That's a 1.3 acceptance rate," the message read. "Consider this: Harvard University (undergraduate) accepts 11 percent of applicants." Insider readers can probably figure out the difference between applying to Harvard and applying for a job at Wal-Mart, but as they say, the numbers speak for themselves. My guess is that any new jobs in a depressed area will generate a lot of interest. But the original source of the unusual comparison is not the blogger, but Wal-Mart itself.

According to Wal-Mart's Mona Williams, this is "part of our overall effort to tell our story. As more and more Americans go to the Internet to get information from varied, credible, trusted sources, Wal-Mart is committed to participating in that online conversation."

As one who tries to represent a "varied, credible and trusted source," I beg to disagree with Mona. There is a significant difference between setting up your own blog and ghost-writing your way into the blogs of others. Even in the wide open frontiers of blogging, there is a strong notion of integrity. Wal-Mart "participates" in the conversation in the same way they "provide jobs in local communities": on their terms, using their own value system, and with zero consideration for the local businesses they are nudging toward oblivion.

The author of Wal-Mart's "blog feeds" is someone named Marshall Manson (no relation, no relation?), a senior account supervisor at the Edelman pubic relations firm, a contractor to Wal-Mart. Manson writes for a number of conservative Web sites trying to limit the role of government. Obviously, Manson - and many others - are alarmed by state initiatives to force Wal-Mart into higher levels of health insurance coverage for its many employees. These bloggers are more than willing to use the Wal-Mart feeds, some with attribution, others without.

Wal-Mart has invited a number of bloggers to attend a media conference in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alas, they are not footing the bill for the trip. I would point out to the behemoth retailer that the Insider has consistently covered Wal-Mart news: we are fascinated by their locking in (illegal immigrant) cleaning crews, targeting loyal employees for termination, forcing employees onto public assistance to survive, and telling managers with differing views to find another job. We're doing our part to "tell Wal-Mart's story." Nonetheless, I am still waiting for my invitation to Bentonville.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 10:57 AM Link to, Comment (1), or E-mail this post
March 6, 2006

Guns at work - coming to a neighborhood near you?

Should employees be able to keep guns in their cars on company premises? This has been a hotly contested legislative issue in several states recently. We've previously discussed the NRA's push in various states to get legislation passed that would forbid employers from banning guns in company parking lots. Legislation allowing employees to keep guns in their cars has passed in several states, and it was expected that Florida would be the next state to enact such legislation. But after a significant outcry from the state's business community, Florida's House Bill 129 was put on hold. This setback is expected to be temporary as the NRA regroups. It's expected that similar measures may soon be introduced in the Senate.

A Brady Center report released in November 2005 was influential in the debate. The report - Forced Entry: The National Rifle Association's Campaign to Force Businesses to Accept Guns at Work" (PDF) – cites a May 2005 study demonstrating that " ... workplaces where guns were permitted were five to seven times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide." The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and The Society for Human Resource Managment (SHRM) were among the many industry associations that opposed the bill.

This is not the only setback the NRA has faced. In 2004, Oklahoma passed such a measure in reaction to an incident in which eight Weyerhaeuser employees were fired for having guns in their cars on company premises. Last month, a federal appeals court upheld the employer's right to ban guns on company property.

If you are an employer, how do you feel about allowing employees to keep guns on your property? Learn whether your state has such legislation pending, and what you can do about it. Forewarned is forearmed.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:07 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 3, 2006

A Note to Fellow Immigrants

Franklin Roosevelt may or may not have begun an address to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the memorable line, "Fellow Immigrants." (A curmudgeonly blogger says a reporter made up the quote.) If Roosevelt didn't say it, he should have. It's a great line and perhaps more compelling than ever. The current debate over illegal immigrants - as fractious and divisive as the debate over abortion - has created a fault line that runs through every aspect of our culture.

In an excellent article in the New York Times (registration required) by Nina Bernstein, we read about the effect on access to health care that well publicized "throw them out" legislative initiatives have had on undocumented immigrants. Not surprisingly, these immigrants are sensitive to anti-immigration sentiments. For example, knowing that identity requirements are tightening, Chinese immigrant workers in New York City are shying away from the conventional health system (which in many cases is not exactly welcoming) and relying more on traditional herbal remedies. Bernstein writes of the sad demise of Ming Qiang Zhao, a 52 year old restaurant worker who could not afford to continue treatment for his nasal cancer. He relied on street remedies until he finally collapsed in a coma. The system which discouraged him from securing ongoing treatment readily admitted him on an emergency basis: a very expensive proposition ($5,400 day) involving several near-bankrupt hospitals. Unable to decipher the effect of the herbal remedies that he had been taking, the doctors treated him as best they could until Ming died.

Who cares?
Beyond the humanitarian issues, beyond the inflammatory rhetoric seeking to toss the illegals out, is the reality of having a two-tier health care system. In the system that most of us subscribe to, treatment is readily available, pharmacology is the best in the world, and minor ailments are treated with respect and concern. In the parallel universe of undocumented immigrants, there are bootleg remedies and unlicensed practitioners - until you collapse and are taken by ambulance to an emergency room.

The public health implications of this two-tiered system are alarming. Bernstein quotes James Tallon, president of the United Hospital Fund: "Anything that keeps anyone away from the health system makes no sense at all. It takes one epidemic to change everyone's attitudes about this." (We've already blogged the terrifying conjunction of avian flu and illegal workers in the poultry industry.)

The debate over what to do about illegal immigration impacts every one of us. I highly recommend that Insider readers track the current debate in Washington through Peter Rousmaniere's working immigrants blog, which is devoted solely to immigration-related issues.

Public Policy Parameters
The immigration issue is complex. There are no easy solutions. The problem is going to test us in ways that we can hardly envision. It brings to mind something that Roosevelt definitely did say: "When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. "I would hope to see the debate over immigration guided by a few basic assumptions:
- It's neither feasible nor desirable to deport 11+ million undocumented people and their families.
- Undocumented workers are an important part of our economy. If they disappeared tomorrow, we would all suffer the consequences.
- It's counter-productive to cut off immigrant access to the health care system. You don't want people treated by quacks. Somehow, we must open health care to everyone residing in our borders. It's the right thing to do and it's in our own selfish interests to do it.
- No matter what people think about illegal immigration, we must develop some kind of fundamental accommodation, some way of making every immigrant visible, so that these people are able to engage in the mainstream culture on a basic level.
- As we figure out ways to accommodate undocumented workers, the cost of doing business will definitely go up. When the protective umbrella of fair labor laws and fundamental benefits begins to cover workers who are currently "off the books," the cost of labor will rise.
- You can build walls to keep people out, but walls tend to become prisons for people on both sides.

There are undoubtedly many more assumptions could be added to this list. Insider readers should jump in on the discussion. This problem is not going away. And how we address it as a nation has powerful implications for all of us.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 12:27 PM Link to, Comment (3), or E-mail this post
March 2, 2006

Short takes: HR resources & tools

Is a good employer also a good investment? That's a question that Brent Hunsberger from The Oregonian's At Work blog explores in some depth in a recent posting. Jerome Dodoson of Parnassus Investments noted that companies listed in Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work for regularly outperform the market. That's a philosophy we ascribe to: doing the right thing is not just "nice", it usually makes good economic sense too.

About.com's Human Resources Guide, Susan Heatherfield, usually provides solid content that is well worth a read. One recent feature of note: Top 10 Ideas About What Employees Want From Work: Employee Motivation. For future articles, here's the main Human Resources page.

Check out The HR Lawyer's Blog - a new look and a new name for the Texas Employment Law Bulletin. The HR blog world keeps expanding - lots of great free resources and advice for employers that take note. George's Employment Blawg keeps a good list of recommended HR blogs.

Compliance Aid e-Library provides a comprehensive list of links to federal, state, and general Web resources - worth a bookmark.

What's the employment forecast look like over the next few years? The Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections home page offers information about the labor market for the nation as a whole for 10 years into the future.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:24 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post