A Matter of Life and Death

Imagine having earned a benefit at work, but knowing that the system was so biased toward the employer that it was impossible to access or use. That’s what many of our members are going through with regard to Workers’ Compensation.

Workers’ Comp is a benefit that all employees receive. If you become injured or sick as a result of your employment, Workers’ Comp is supposed to be there to pay your medical bills and lost wages. This applies whether you break a bone, get infected with COVID-19, or any other health issue. The problem we’ve been seeing during this pandemic, though, is that it’s nearly impossible to prove that you got infected by COVID at work. If you file a claim for a broken foot, for example, there would probably be no question about how, where, and when it happened. On the other hand, employees who file COVID claims — even after being coughed on by sick customers or having worked next to a confirmed COVID carrier — find it impossible to prove that they contracted the disease at work. After all, how could you pinpoint the moment that a small globule of spittle landed on your wrist?

This is unfair. You’re entitled to those benefits, but your employer can keep them from you almost at their whim. This tells workers who are a vital part of the region’s food supply chain who get sick: “You’re on your own.” It’s a slap in the face.

Earlier this year, we tried to get Oregon to do what twenty other states have already done or are in the process of doing: Adding a “presumption” for COVID to Workers’ Comp programs for front-line workers like you. This means that if you were to file a COVID claim, the assumption would be that you contracted it at work and were eligible for Workers’ Comp. If your employer disagreed they would have to prove that you didn’t. (Right now it’s reversed… the assumption favors the employer and the burden of proof is on you!)

We went to the Governor, who told us it was an agency decision. We went to the agency, who told us that it was the Legislature’s call. We went to Legislative leadership, who told us that they were going to hold a Special Session to deal with COVID, but didn’t have time to protect workers. Then they held another Special Session, and still didn’t have time to protect workers.

Well, enough is enough. Instead of continuing to take part in the Legislature’s wild goose chase, we’re going to take things in a different direction.

UFCW 555 has been known for its aggressive and active support of candidates who stand up for the working class. But we need to always remember that the goal is not just getting candidates elected — the goal is to protect and serve our members. So we’re going to redirect our political funds to do just that. With the money that would have gone out to candidates, we’ll be putting together a legal clinic for workers wondering about Workers’ Comp coverage, how to file for it, and how to protect yourself.

We’re still going to be making the case to our elected officials, too. UFCW 555 has spearheaded the Oregon Labor Policy Network, which will be a hub of information on this issue as well as helpful actions. This will be a way for you and other Oregonians to sign a petition urging legislative action, send messages directly to your legislators, and even send supportive postcards. In addition, if you or someone you know has a compelling story to tell about their workplace experience with COVID, you will be able to share that on the page so that we have a central place to collect those experiences.

When this launches in the coming week, we’ll be targeting specific legislative districts as well as broadcasting it widely around the state in the form of social media ads, web ads, “preroll” videos, and other media. We hope to see plenty of UFCW members take part, but we also want to make it broadly accessible so please feel free to share it with your supportive friends and family members.

Meanwhile, I want all our members to keep three things in mind:

  1. If you think you got infected at work, file a claim even if you think it will be denied. We don’t know yet what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are going to be. Filing a claim (even if it’s denied) will help create a record that you believed you got sick at work, which helps down the road if you need to make a claim against your employer.
  2. It is illegal for an employer to try and interfere with someone filing a Workers’ Comp claim — or retaliate against them for doing so. If your manager even suggests that you shouldn’t file a claim (“Ah, there’s no need to file that!”) or suggests that you’ll be in trouble if you do, contact your shop steward and let them know.
  3. Employers have been telling lawmakers that there haven’t been a lot of claim denials, but that’s really because they’ve gotten good at convincing employees not to even bother filing claims. When you file a claim, you’re not only protecting yourself — you’re helping make the case that this protection is something that all front-line workers deserve.

We’ve watched our Lawmakers kick the can down the road, but it’s about to get kicked right back. Workers deserve these protections.

In Unity,

Jeff Anderson