The news is difficult to believe. When COVID-19 infections ravaged a Tyson poultry plant in Iowa, the company could have taken steps to protect workers. Yet, it did not. Instead, supervisors cancelled safety meetings, stopped going to the plant floor and decided to deny the exploding problem. Management protected itself and left workers to suffer. But, the story gets even worse. Supervisors started betting on how many workers would get sick with coronavirus. That’s right – Supervisors actually gambled on worker lives.
While difficult to understand the depth of such depravity, the problem is larger than a few bad managers. Our system ignores systemic workplace safety violations. In the last year, I’ve written several articles about poultry plants in Alabama that have long histories of worker injuries and deaths. Despite their long histories of injuries and deaths, these plants have suffered almost no consequences. Here are a couple of my prior 2020 articles:
The poultry industry may be the prime example of an industry that turns its back on safety. But, the problem is larger than one industry. As Nebraska attorney Jon Rehm wrote in a recent blog post titled Don’t Bet On Workplace Safety, the problem involves workers’ compensation laws themselves. With workers’ compensation, employers are largely immunized from liability for wrongdoing. In exchange for immunity, employers must provide minimal workers compensation benefits. Legal scholars often refer to this as a so-called “grand bargain” which provides basic benefits to workers. Not much of a bargain for workers! Too often after an injury, workers are forced to fight for basic medical care and minimal disability benefits. One local insurance company defense lawyer in Huntsville regularly claims every single hurt worker is engaged in some sort of “fraud” simply by seeking basic benefits.
Accident cases often involve simple issues of proof. But, exposure cases are a different story. When the illness or injury involves an occupational exposure like COVID-19, difficulties with proving the exposure in court make benefits non-existent. The current coronavirus pandemic should make us all stop and reconsider our priorities concerning health and safety. As a community, we need to ask ourselves whether we truly value human life. Do we value our working men and women? If so, we need to re-think our system. This includes the re-thinking: (1) Protecting workers who put their lives at risk occupationally for us; and, (2) Enforcing a culture of safety in the workplace.
Some Illnesses Should Be Presumed Occupationally-Related
How do you prove exactly where you contracted coronavirus? That’s a difficult issue which makes compensation all but impossible in most cases. Yet, some essential workers put their lives at risk daily for us. Poultry workers. Healthcare employees. First responders. Teachers. All of these employees work long hours around serious risks of COVID-19. If they become ill, should the system care for them? I think the risk warrants it. Some states have altered their laws to protect essential workers by creating a presumption in favor of compensation. Of course, Alabama has not. Our state has failed to adjust benefits for families for decades. So, it is no surprise that our legislature has failed to protect essential workers that care for all of us.
Occupational Safety Must Be A Two-Way Street
The one-sided nature of worker safety in Alabama is a topic I’ve long discussed. I first wrote about the topic on this blog in a 2012 article titled, In Alabama Worker Safety Is A One-Way Street. Let me explain. In Alabama, workers bear all the risk and all the burden of unsafe workplaces. If an employee chooses to disregard safety and suffers an injury, he or she can lose the right to work comp benefits. What about the company that intentionally chooses to ignore safety? In Alabama, companies that choose to ignore safety face NO penalties. The company that cancels its safety meetings and bets on worker deaths (like Tyson in this news report), faces NO responsibility for its actions. The company that chooses not to provide safety equipment merely owes the same minimal work comp benefits as the company that tried to act safely. Where is the incentive for safe companies? Where is the deterrent for bad ones? Alabama’s work comp laws penalize workers, but not employers, who intentionally ignore safety. This policy sends the wrong message. It fails to protect our most valuable resource — the working men and women in our communities.
We should re-think our priorities. We should choose to value the health and safety of our communities. That means (1) protecting essential workers from known risks of their work; and, (2) making safety a top priority for everyone in the workplace.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps injured workers across Alabama.