MassCOSH at Midsummer

It’s 5pm and I’m standing at the head of a conference table in a downtown Boston law firm. In the room are lawyers, injured workers, and advocates. Another intern and myself are about to facilitate a bilingual meeting. Everyone in the room is older and mostly everyone is male. Our supervisor coaxed the attendees to the meeting, now it was left to up us to gain their respect and insight.

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The purpose of the meeting was to determine the substance of our report on the workers’ compensation system. We are seeking a balanced perspective of a complicated and convoluted system that treats participants unequally. During my time at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health I’ve met with lawyers, doctors, advocates, and low-wage workers. Each interview has its own flavor and end goal, revealing a different view of the workers’ compensation system.

Everyone believes the system is broken. Everyone believes it isn’t them.

I feel my confidence grow after each one-on-one and group meeting. I and the other intern prepare and debrief after each interview to hone our approach. I’ve learned to employ open-ended questions and to not shy away from critical ones. We’ve also come to recognize the importance of language and setting to gain the trust of both professionals and laborers. We’ve developed relationships and fought to demonstrate that we are knowledgeable and determined, despite the generally disparaging and transient connotations of being an intern. With each connection we make, I know I am gaining valuable professional tools for my future career.

A major goal at the beginning of the summer was to meaningfully contribute to my community. MassCOSH has successfully advocated for several pieces of legislation that benefit injured workers. Most recently, they were part of successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts and to increase burial allowances for workers killed on the job. Next, MassCOSH intends to pursue changes in the workers’ compensation system to ensure low-wage and non-English speaking workers can equally access their rights. Our report will inform what specific changes MassCOSH lobbies for. Having seen the organization’s previous policy successes I know my report is a meaningful piece of the process rather than something that will be put in a drawer come September.

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Compiling a report for MassCOSH has led to more practical skills than I could have imagined. Knowing this report is a serious document that will precipitate greater change makes even the hours researching in front a computer fulfilling. In the short run, I’m looking forward to our next step of passing around the draft to receive feedback from various contributors. In the long run, I’m looking forward to a radical overhaul of Massachusetts’ workers compensation system.

– Mia Katan ‘15

Injured workers and a Bruised System

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

– Emma Lazarus

Sadness needs no translation. Sofia’s[1] rapid Spanish rolled over me in waves as I sat sunk into couch cushions. Beyond “Best Western” and “cleaning maid” I relied on another intern’s translation. In the cool of a church basement in East Boston, we absorbed Sofia and Isabella’s stories. They shared a common theme: each was injured at work, their employer denied the injury had occurred on the job, and they lost their jobs.

Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health seeks to advocate and help injured workers like Sofia and Isabella. Their worker’s center helps injured workers, who primarily hail from Boston’s thriving immigrant community, navigate the workers’ compensation system. This summer, another intern and I will be compiling a report on the Massachusetts workers’ compensation system. We are actively interviewing attorneys,MassCOSH injured workers, and experts to explore the contributing factors in cases of delayed medical treatment and inadequate wage replacement benefits.

When a worker is injured on the job their employer is mandated to report the injury to the Department of Industrial Accidents and pay for medical treatment and lost wages through insurance. Most of the time injured workers receive benefits without a fight. However, this process often takes a different turn for Boston’s immigrant workers. The workers that MassCOSH assists are predominantly non-English speaking, undocumented, and earn on or below the minimum wage. These immigrant workers must sometimes face their employer and its insurance company in a prolonged legal battle in pursuit of payment for medical treatment and lost wages.

The state workers’ compensation system is a mesh of contradictory incentives and complex steps. Employers without workers’ compensation sometimes attempt to avoid fines by leaving injured workers at the hospital and denying any responsibility or relationship. Employers with insurance also sometimes try to deny responsibility to avoid increasing insurance premiums. Conversely, some workers fake an injury to dishonestly collect benefits. Additionally, both lawyers and insurance companies are driven by profit incentives on opposite sides of the fight, decreasing opportunity for negotiation.Untitled

This legal battle hurts everyone involved. Injured workers’ health deteriorates as treatment is delayed, which increases the cost to the employer, insurance company, and state. Many injured workers already face socio-economic disadvantages such as minimal education and an inability to speak English. When you consider the financial power of employers and insurance companies it truly becomes a David and Goliath fight.

Over the course of this summer we are collecting testimonies from various individuals connected to the workers’ compensation system. Lawyers and experts have proven enthusiastic to share their frustrations, each with their own specific grievances. We also intend to collect approximately fifteen worker testimonies to give our report a human touch. We have met with government employees from the Department of Industrial Accidents as well as individuals in the Occupational and Safety field. We hope to gain a holistic and balanced perspective of a system within which injured workers have so much at stake.

This comprehensive report is intended to identify elements of the workers’ compensation system that harm all parties involved. An ineffective system financially drains employers, insurance companies, workers, and the state. Through a national comparison of workers’ compensation systems as well as interviewing lawyers, workers, and experts we hope to identify the most needed changes. Hopefully, this report will inform MassCOSH’s advocacy and precipitate meaningful change within the Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation system.

– Mia Katan’ 15

 

[1] Names changed for privacy purposes