“Workman’s Compensation is a joke ” says Gary Whitley, as his wife of thirty years, Bernice, nods in agreement. “The only person it protects is the employer”. “There is absolutely nothing in place out here to help the worker in the event he or she loses their job, or worse yet, is injured at work.”
Gary and Bernice (not their real names) speak from experience. Gary drove eighteen wheelers for nearly twenty years. Last August, he was injured in an accident caused when another vehicle crossed into his lane on a two lane black top road. Gary veered to avoid the collision and the wheel of his truck went into a ditch and threw him violently across the small road, up an embankment, and into some trees and a fence line, causing an estimated $35,000 in damage to property and the truck.
Gary’s employer immediately terminated him, but Gary was not informed of that fact until April of the following year. Between August and February of the following year, Gary and his lawyer fought to get Workman’s Compensation benefits. His employer’s insurance company issued Gary a medical card, which they had canceled before it even arrived. They continued to deny him benefits until his lawyer, and the Tennessee Department of Labor forced the insurance carrier to act.
In the interim, Gary was caught in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare. If he ignored the pain and got another job (provided he even could) he would lose all benefits he was due. Meanwhile, the insurance carrier was refusing to pay out any benefits.
There was also a debate about jurisdiction in the case. Gary drove for a company based out of Kentucky, lived in Tennessee, and the accident occurred in Missouri. It took approximately four months for the state of Tennessee to assume responsibility.
Finally, in February, the insurance carrier agreed to pay for six weeks of physical therapy. A case manager, an advocate for the insurance carrier, was assigned to monitor the situation. After five sessions of physical therapy (about two weeks) the case manager decided that Gary, who had been injured for over six months, was being “non compliant” with the therapy, and stopped the sessions.
Gary was then sent to a Physician for evaluation and to another office which specialized in performing what is known as a “Functional Capacity Evaluation”. Both of these evaluations were paid for by the insurance carrier. Both found Gary capable of performing “any job he so desires” and awarded him zero percent disability, essentially ending Gary’s claim. They in essence, accused Gary of faking any injuries (in an unrelated medical test later, after his claim was, for the most part, denied, it was discovered that Gary had an abdominal hernia, in addition to his back injury).
Gary’s lawyer advised him that he may file for unemployment benefits at this point. Gary did so, and the employer fought against this as well. The company Gary drove for stated that he had been terminated for an “at fault accident” and this was considered “misconduct” on Gary’s part. The company Gary drove for is owned and operated by a family concern, and all the members of the safety board that determine whether or not an accident was preventable are from that same family.
Twice, Gary had to present his case to the Workforce Commission, the entity that oversees unemployment benefits. Both times the Workforce Commission sided with Gary, and he now receives, at least, unemployment benefits.
There is little doubt that Gary’s story is being repeated time and time again all over this Nation. With the economy in a shambles, and jobs scarce, as always, the first to suffer the brunt of the cutbacks and reductions, by whatever means available, are the workers. Needing to protect the corporate bottom line, employers usually cut the labor force first. To protect their own standard of living, however, many employers have looked to other means of reducing their labor ranks, including buyouts, retirements, and outright firings for such ambiguous behavior as “misconduct”, which they decide the meaning of. Depending upon the state, there are few laws to protect employees from being hustled out the door for obscure reasons
For Gary and Bernice, the main thing that has helped them through all this is their faith. Their son, Gary Jr. bought a house in Cordova some time ago and was transferred to Nashville with his job. Gary and Bernice now rent the house from him, which was handy because due to the lack of income, they lost their home in Bartlett. Gary is now attending school to get his degree, and the unemployment benefits help.
Bernice Whitley says ” Although we have lost our home, we have a roof over our head, our payments are half what they were in Bartlett, we have some money coming in, and we will survive. We believe that this is what God meant for us. We may have suffered for a time, but in the end, God has provided for us.”
Gary echoes his wife’s sentiments. “Without Divine intervention in our lives, I don’t know where we would be right now. I only pray that others who are hurting out here get help as well.”