A tale of toil in a workers' compensation claims unit.
I am the one who releases your disability check every two weeks. I am the one who decides if we should send out the company spies to see if you are installing a new subwoofer in your ’67 Impala, or if you are on a dolly underneath your boat tightening screws, and then fastening your neck brace as you leave for your doctor’s appointment. Not to mention that I, in my early 20s, fresh out of college with no workers comp experience, no 40-hours-a-week work experience even, will make a decision either to let you go to the doctor you want, or to send you to a doctor I know nothing about simply because our company has a contract with a different company, which means donuts on Fridays, new pens, calendars, and magnets. We play detective, doctor, broker, shrink, doormat, prescription drug dealer, god, hooky—the list goes on. They should never have hired me.
Did I mention that workers compensation will go down in history as the last feeble attempt at playing “Democracy” before the dark clouds of Empire smudge out the sun and the earth opens up and swallows us whole? Don’t have health insurance because it costs half your paycheck? Can’t afford it because you don’t have a living wage, you pay $1,000 for a closet in the city, and you work twelve hours a day, six days a week?
Well, all you have to do is go to the unemployment line and wait for someone to ask you if you were hurt on the job. Say yes, and you will be escorted through the entire web of underground workings of workers comp fraud. Doctors who make up your ailments on the spot will file a claim with your employer and their insurance company. Then the claim will fall into the hands of an overworked, inexperienced claims adjustor (OICA, in this case me), who will notice your claim only when you start annoying me with doctors’ reports that say “stay off of work until next visit,” and you only have a laceration on your pinky finger (fancy word for cut). If you’re lucky the OICA will bury the claim under towering piles of paper while you sit on your ass collecting checks. But just hope you get an adjustor like me. If you get the wrong one, they’ll be on you like flies on shit, filming you cheat on your wife, noticing that your hernia seems to have healed fine six months ago; then off to court you go. By the time your wife finds out, prison won’t look so bad.
I soon found out that I was not cut out to be a good claims adjustor. I suspected fraud in one case. The claim started to irritate me. The claimant kept going back to the doctor and staying off work, but the doctor didn’t know what was wrong with her, nor were they trying to find out. I couldn’t tell who was behind the curtain calling the shots.
So I sent the company spies out to video her. The results were quite interesting. Here I was in an office hundreds of miles away, looking at close-ups of her setting up picnic tables, picking up water coolers, and chasing balloons at her nephew’s birthday party in the park, while “suffering from major back pain.” This was all the evidence I needed to report her to the fraud department as required by law. Plus, I might get a promotion, or at least a huge slap on the back from all the corn-fed, loud-mouthed, big American types in the office, and possibly new friends for “happy hour.” Wow, the possibilities.
But really, I sat quietly at my desk, feeling nauseous. I had never pursued a case this far before. See, the unexpected factor in the equation is that I felt for her. I related to this woman who wanted to have a break from the grind. She wanted to have her life back, and like all of us, probably wanted to work hard at something she enjoyed and was interested in. From the conversations I had with her, she was not interested in tucking in someone else’s sheets at a hotel and cleaning up after their privilege. She was a woman of color who wanted a vacation from her racist, sexist, patronizing boss (I know because I was on the phone with him all the time). I was not going to be the snitch. I do not think people should go to jail for being creative in trying to survive in our capitalist economy. It is a different story if you are orchestrating the workings of the Empire—that is the real crime to me. But this girl was just trying to get a break, and I felt for her. So, to make a long story short, I did not report her to the Feds. I tucked the videotape back into the folder, and after a few weeks I convinced her to go to a different doctor, who immediately put her back to work, and all of a sudden she was well again! Miracle.
There are many miracles in workers compensation.
• • •
Scene takes place in a stuffy cubicled industrial office space. The cubicle walls are short so if you stand up everyone can see you. Only real friend in the office who you can tell everything to sneaks over to take a break at your desk. You interrupt her with your question.
“Hey Jae, you didn’t hear me yelling from across the room, did you?” She nods no.
“Well I was yelling at this employer who was trying to tell me how to do my job. He was mad that his employee was not back at work yet. I’m thinking, ‘He just had hernia surgery, and you want him back lifting 100-pound boxes? He’s gonna be busting loose again.’ And the boss was saying some shit like ‘I really respect my guys here, they’ve been working for me for ten years now, I treat them like familia.’ None of the guys there speak English—boss is from Gringolandia, and he acts like he hosts dinner parties with their families at his house—while they’re getting paid minimum wage. Ten years? They’ve been working for you for ten years and you’re paying them minimum wage? Plus he’s a grade-A asshole, talks down to me, and calls me ‘honey’ on the phone.”
Boss walks by and I pretend that I’m teaching my friend how to pull up something on the computer. We both become completely absorbed in whatever crap is on the screen, carefully sculpted concerned eyebrows. I continued. “But dang, it’s harder to regulate on the company employers because our boss cares what they think. But you know how I am, if someone says something hella wrong, I believe in community accountability and all that shit, I’ll let them know what they did wrong.”
“Girl, that sounds rough,” she replied. “Well, I just left my desk for lunch and when I came back I checked my messages and the lady said in her computer voice, ‘you have 32 messages.’ And earlier I was taking a quick mental break, reading a news article for three minutes at my desk, when ‘the hawk’ came by and cast his shadow over me. You know, in his passive-aggressive way. Then he says, ‘Uh, you know you’re not supposed to be doing that.’
I was thinking, ‘Uh, well why not motherfucker?’ Like they own every single second of our time at work. They try to run it like a sweatshop, I’m saying that I do good work and that’s what you are paying me for.
“And remember before, I got that phone call for an art commission (I have a life you know). I took the call at Sarah’s desk on my cell phone, and so what, I was talking on it for a second. Boss comes over and I think that he’s waiting for Sarah to tell her something. So I leave her desk, still on the phone, and walk over to my desk. Mind you, I’m not disturbing anyone, I’m just handling something for a second. I work hard at this job and do my work well. And he follows me all the way to my desk. At this point I happen to be finishing my conversation, so I wrap it up at my leisure and hang up.
“‘Uh, what was that about?’ he asks. ‘I was on the phone.’ (Duh.) ‘Uh, well, this is work hours.’ ‘Well um, other people have cell phones here, their human connections call them every now and then, kids, family, whoever. It’s okay to pick it up, handle your business for a few seconds, and then get back to work. That’s all I did. You know, we have lives outside of work and we always do our job just fine.’
“Girl, I really said that, and he didn’t know what to say. You know, that passive-aggressive shit. And so he walked away. But I really don’t give a fuck, what are they going to do, fire us? They need us, we are juggling at least 150 claims. They can barely get people to stick around long enough to handle the entire life of a claim. This place is weird. But man, the other units, like downstairs, you know what they be going through. I know because I used to work there, they count the minutes you’re in the bathroom. No joke. Anyway, I gotta get back to work. Walk back like normal. I’ll see you at lunch. Take it Easy.”
• • •
The ten realities and rules of workers compensation:
1. Celebrate those birthdays! And those promotions, and those last days before someone leaves the office, and every holiday, and that company spirit, and especially those Fridays! Supply a cake every time, and inquire into company lunch. If you don’t get that, at least you can have an hour lunch.
2. Never date anyone in the office. After you realize their mama still folds their laundry and they think that Colin Powell sure is a good role model for young African-Americans, you will have to see them everyday and be reminded of this.
3. Take long breaks, eat during work time, leave the office to do errands during your lunch to push a little closer to your dreams, one step closer to being able to quit your job.
4. Send perverted emails to co-workers to pass the time. Laugh when you pass their desk and make a quick gesture to reference the joke.
5. Talk on the phone all the time, and when the boss passes by say “Uh, yes, I see, well, we’ll just have to send him to Oak Valley Medical and get him back to work as soon as possible because…yu no blah blah yeah oh kay…” Fade out as the boss leaves, “Anyway, gurl…”
6. Have your “herbal remedies” in moderation every morning to morph your cubicle into a wild jungle of paper mountain ranges; your boss’s voice turns into a meaningless buzzing noise that you squash with your foot; your co-workers become main characters in the new sitcom you are planning in your head.
7. Learn to speak in coded languages; sign language is a good one to start out with during meetings.
8. Make friends with the computer tech. ’Nuff said.
9. Smoke in moderation. This is the most important bonding that takes place with your co-workers. The smokers have an entire network of bumming cigarettes, inside jokes, gossip you probably don’t want to know, and shit-talking, like “Yo, I can’t take this shit-hole any longer, I’m gonna quit tomorrow.” Also, if you are known as a smoker, you automatically become entitled to hourly breaks. Plus you can see who your co-workers are going out to lunch with, and then you can trade gossip for cigarettes!
10. Your work is never done. You can never be “caught up.” You are either “not drowning” or in “crisis mode.”
• • •
Below is a create-your-own-drama game called “You Could Be Next!” This game helps you imagine what your future work injury might be and the cause of your demise. These choices are all real options in the computer program. Please choose one selection from each category to complete your story, e.g. Nervous Disorder—Allergies—Animal, wild, vermin—Lungs.
Don’t forget, it’s work-related. So this person’s case might be that they have a nervous disorder from allergy attacks that comes from rats or mice that live in the building where they work, and it primarily affects their lungs.
These are just a few of the many possibilities. Don’t forget, you can have multiple injuries—strained neck, back, upper and lower arms, pain in lower back, tendonitis in both wrists and forearms, nausea, stress—especially if you have a lawyer!
But hey, maybe having your leg broken is better than checking in your soul at the door every time you go to work. At least at my job, it’s the only way to get a decent vacation. And just to make it clear, just because you enjoy your workers-comp-sponsored vacation doesn’t mean that your leg does not really hurt. You just have your priorities straight. Shit, live your life.
|NATURE OF INJURY||INJURY CAUSE||INCIDENT TYPE||BODY PART|
|nervous disorder||allergies||animal, wild vermin||lungs|
|asphyxiation||crushed between||electric equipment||facial tissue|
|fracture||cut/puncture, power tool||objects handled||wrist|
|eye injury||scald/hot grease||hot liquid||right eye|
|bite, human||misconduct of others||heavy person||head, scalp|
|amputation, partial||caught between||escalator||hand, right|
|disease, contagious||burn or scald||strain using tool||skull|
|harassment||crushed between machinery||broken glass||eyes, both|
|hernia||fall, slip into excavation, hole||cement||back, lower|
|poisoning||bite, human||frozen pipe rupture||finger|
|amputation||eye injury from grinding or chopping||grease or oil|