Workers’ Compensation Out of Reach

Workers’ compensation is, technically, available to help injured poultry workers. But the fact is, it exists for them mostly on paper.

Survey participants who suffered and reported injuries requiring them to miss work rarely said that they received workers’ compensation benefits (29 percent).

Alabama law makes it difficult for workers to receive coverage for musculoskeletal disorders – the type of injury most common among poultry workers.

In 1992, the Alabama Legislature amended the state’s Worker Compensation Act to enact a more difficult standard for workers reporting “injuries which have resulted from gradual deterioration or cumulative physical stress disorders” because such claims were “one of the contributing causes of the current workers’ compensation crisis facing [the] state.”1 Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually subject to this higher burden of proof.2

By enacting this law, the Legislature chose to take what it perceived as a financial burden on insurance companies and place it squarely on some of the state’s hardest working, lowest paid people – poultry workers. These workers face other obstacles as well, including tight deadlines for reporting injuries. This hinders the reporting of many musculoskeletal disorders that may not be diagnosable immediately upon their occurrence – often because employers obstruct workers’ access to independent medical evaluation.3

In addition, many workers are blocked from the workers’ compensation system by employer threats and retaliation. Human Rights Watch found that “companies in the U.S. meat and poultry industry avoid payouts through their workers’ compensation programs by systematically failing to recognize and report claims, delaying claims, denying claims, and threatening and taking reprisals against workers who file claims for compensation for workplace injuries.”4

Alabama law prohibits retaliation against workers who apply for compensation benefits by stating that no employee “shall be terminated by an employer solely because the employee has instituted or maintained any action against the employer to recover workers’ compensation benefits.”5

On paper, this provides greater protection than Georgia, another major poultry-producing state, which expressly permits employers to retaliate against workers for filing compensation claims.6

Nevertheless, the word “solely” sticks out of Alabama’s statute like a sore thumb. It invites unscrupulous employers to invent additional reasons to fire injured employees seeking benefits. Workers who participated in this study were under no illusion about what happens to those brave enough to seek workers’ compensation – they risk losing their jobs.

 


 

[1] Ala. Code § 25-5-81(c); comments to the 1992 Amendments. The precise text reads: “The decision of the court shall be based on a preponderance of the evidence as contained in the record of the hearing, except in cases involving injuries which have resulted from gradual deterioration or cumulative physical stress disorders, which shall be deemed compensable only upon a finding of clear and convincing proof that those injuries arose out of and in the course of the employee’s employment. For the purposes of this amendatory act, ‘clear and convincing’ shall mean evidence that, when weighted against evidence in opposition, will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm conviction as to each essential element of the claim and a high probability as to the correctness of the conclusion. Proof by clear and convincing evidence requires a level of proof greater than a preponderance of the evidence or the substantial weight of the evidence, but less than beyond a reasonable doubt.” Ala. Code § 25-5-81(c).

[2] USX Corp. v. Bradley, 881 So. 2d 421, 425 (Ala. Civ. App. 2003).

[3] See, e.g., Ala. Code § 25-5-78 (denying all benefits to workers who do not file a written report of an accident within, in some circumstances, five days, and in all circumstances, 90 days).

[4] Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants at 57 (January 25, 2005), available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/01/24/blood-sweat-and-fear.

[5] Ala. Code § 25-5-11.1.

[6] See Evans v. Bibb Co., 178 Ga. App. 139, 139–40 (Ga. Ct. App. 1986) (holding that employers may lawfully terminate their employees in direct and open retaliation for employees’ assertion of rights under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act, O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1 et seq.).