My father was an injured worker. This is the first time I have ever written about this publicly. But since his birthday would have been this week, I am thinking about him more.
Dad was a renaissance man. After writing poetry, acting in plays and running cross-country in high school, he found himself loading trucks for a living to support his wife and family.
Though he was an alcoholic, he never allowed it to interfere with his strong work ethic. He never missed a day of work, no matter how sick he was. He was president of his local teamster’s union, but he hated advocating for workers who did not pull their weight.
He was a tough man. And he had these rules for keeping himself tough. He never wore a winter coat in Cleveland’s famously miserable winters until December to get his body used to the cold. He drank hot coffee in the summer to get used to the heat.
While I was working to complete my journalism degree in the late 1980s, I was unaware that my father had filed a workers’ compensation claim with his self-insured employer. We did not talk much.
I did not know about his claim when I landed my first job at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. By the time I found out, he had been off work for two or three years due to back problems. This was the early 1990s, when the workers’ compensation cost crisis was starting to inspire employers to initiate activities to save unnecessary workers’ comp expenses, such as return to work.
His employer was not enlightened, so dad did not get a return to work opportunity. Instead, he sat home, waiting for the next hearing, the next letter from the attorney…you get the picture.
To use my dad’s words, he needed to work so he could feel like a man.
My parents’ divorce was finalized while my father was on workers’ comp. He told me later that not working was an important contributing factor that led to the divorce. He said he did not feel like a real man because he could not provide for his family and eventually, it pervaded his psyche. Ultimately, he ended up on Social Security Disability.
When I started covering workers’ comp full-time as a reporter in Washington. D.C., I did not tell anyone about my dad. My role as a reporter was objectivity, not advocacy. I kept my opinions to myself and kept them from my work. And I did right.
My dad’s experience did not cause me to become an advocate for injured workers in the traditional political sense. The political arguments were too shortsighted to me. I have always felt the best contribution I could make was to objectively report the truth about workers’ compensation for everyone’s benefit. I also try to inform injured workers when I can. To see more, please click here.
For example, one shortsighted political goal of injured worker advocates was to push for employee choice of physician. I had always wished, however, that labor and employer advocates worked together to ensure insured workers got the best medical care as soon as possible.
Dad might of thought it was great at first that he could get a break from work with the stroke of the doctor’s pen. But if he had known what we know now – that the longer a person is off from a work-related incident the harder it would be for he/she to return to their same earnings – he might have been a little more urgent about finding a solution.
We know now that he did not need the choice of physician; he needed an occupational physician to hasten recovery. He did not need a doctor that would sign an order to stay home from work, but one who encouraged him to explore ways he can earn a living with his disability.
My dad did not need a lawyer to fight with his employer so he could be out of work collecting benefits as long as possible. And he certainly did not need to lose a percentage of his benefits to his attorney. We know now that many employees hire attorneys due to lack of communication on the employer’s part. (I have offered advice on how to improve communication about workers’ compensation in previous blogs. To see one of these blogs, click here.)
What my father did need, however, was an employer who cared about him.
Back in those days, at least in Cleveland, it was assumed a lawyer was necessary for workers’ comp. If my dad had known he could self-advocate instead, I think he would have done a fine job on his own and saved money in attorneys’ fees. He was always fantastic at advocating for others.
What my father did need, however, was an employer who cared about him. All workers need that. And thankfully, many employers have found that having a culture of caring pays off in many ways. He also needed a return to work opportunity. To use my dad’s words, he needed to work so he could feel like a man.
Years later, dad got cancer and the fateful call to Hospice had been made. I wanted to see him, but I was far along in the pregnancy of my second daughter and was contagious with a sinus infection. There was no easy way to get from Washington, D.C. to Cleveland in the winter so he advised me not to come.
Just one week before my second daughter was born, and four days before dad died, we prayed together and said goodbye. I hung up the phone in tears knowing that someday, when I reach the end of my journey, I will see him again in a better place.
He died just after his 59th birthday.
I don’t think of my dad much when I write about workers’ compensation because his identity to me was being my father, not an injured worker. I think of him, instead, in the totality of the man he was. Seeing what happened to my dad does give me empathy for how workers’ compensation affects everyone associated with work-related incidents. Families, supervisors, co-workers and others are affected as well.
I am grateful that I have seen the workers’ compensation system improve from so many perspectives since dad filed is claim in the late 1980s. I still believe, however, we have a long way to go.