Desperate Times Call for Organized Measures

June 19, 2015

When an injured worker meets with MassCOSH’s Worker Center staff for the first time, their stories and background may vary, but their primary concerns are always the same: ‘Due to work, I am hurt, can’t receive the care I need, and am going broke.’
Hurt on the job and suffering from untreated and undertreated slipped disks, broken bones, and other occupational injuries, dozens of workers every month report being wracked with anxiety about how they can pay medical bills, rent, or even buy food while they wait up to seven months for their Workers’ Compensation benefits to begin.
“Workers feel so much frustration after having an accident at work and needing to wait five or six months to receive the Workers’ Compensation payment,” said Guadalupe González, who herself needed three surgeries on her ankle after falling on the job. “By the time you finally receive your first check, your debts have gotten higher, and receiving 60% of your salary does not pay the bills, like food and rent.”
González was not alone in her desperation.
“Worker after worker were coming in after being hurt on the job and they were frustrated and shocked how long it took for Workers’ Compensation to start,” said Worker Center Organizer Jonny Arevalo. “They were working paycheck to paycheck to pay the rent, support their kids and families, and when they became injured, they lost that paycheck and the stability that came with it. We finally thought that there should be a support system that could aid these workers in figuring out how to access Workers’ Comp benefits and help each other during that difficult time when the paychecks stopped but the benefits have yet to begin.”
Thus the Injured Workers Committee (IWC) was born. Consisting of MassCOSH and other members of the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative, together they have been using their experience to draft legislation to improve how the Workers’ Compensation system serves low-wage earners, share their compelling stories with the public, and create a network of support.
Even though the IWC is still in its infancy, they have already meet a major goal, bringing together lawyers who assist injured workers with the medical providers who provide them care. The committee calls this group of workers, lawyers, and doctors the Workers Compensation Advisory Board. The IWC hopes this coalition will better help both professions understand what an injured worker experiences and their unique needs while they are unable to work. They are also utilizing these professionals to advise the IWC as they seek to reform the Workers’ Compensation system.
“Currently, workers can wait six to seven months until benefits kick in,” reports Worker Center Organizer Mirna Montano. “There are just a small fraction of us who consider themselves middle class and can pay rent and cover other bills for six months without a paycheck. That is why one of our immediate goals is the passage of an Act Increasing Injured Workers’ Access to Medical Care and Workers’ Compensation Benefits (HB1684). If passed, the bill would improve Workers Compensation by reducing barriers so low-wage workers can receive their medical treatment and wage benefits more quickly, and increase the wage benefits for low-wage workers from 60% of their former wages to 70%.”
Camilo Ruiz knows personally how the waiting so long for benefits can upend your life. After hurting his back unloading trucks, he had to wait six months to finally receive his payments, causing financial ruin.
“I lost the house where I lived, and survived with my savings until they were depleted and my family then helped me until I got the first Workers' Compensation payment,” said Ruiz. “By then, the 60% [of my former wages] were not enough to pay all debts that had built up.”
Besides leading reforms, the IWC continues to aid workers on a daily basis.
The committee has been very active helping to connect injured workers with legal representation and in bringing employers to the bargaining table who previously refused to meet with their injured employee. The IWC meets every month in East Boston and uses that time to follow up with all the workers who are fighting to secure benefits.
“These meeting are very important because it’s also our chance to invite doctors and lawyers to join us to keep their relationship with us strong,” said Arevelo “For doctors, these meeting are especially important because we can teach them how to recognize occupational injuries and how to fill out forms so that workers can access benefits.”
As elected officials debate the changes to the Workers’ Compensation system this legislative session, they can expect to hear from more from these united and highly motivated workers and advocates as they press for these badly needed reforms.