By Robert Sherwin, Lewis, Marenstein, Wicke, Sherwin & Lee; with David Dugan, Esq., and Steve Scardino, Esq., on behalf of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association
Most people involved in workers’ compensation understand cumulative trauma — wear-and-tear work injuries resulting from years of repetitive motion and/or exposure to harmful environments — but many policymakers and workers don’t yet have a grasp of the importance of cumulative trauma claims to employees and their families, especially for our first responders. The call is getting louder from some who want to eliminate these wear-and-tear types of claims in the name of cost savings, leaving little protection for workers when they need it most.
Imagine working hard for years, preparing for the day you want to retire. You pass probation, gain professional credibility, dedicate your time, provide for your family and put your health second. You’ve ignored countless bumps and bruises and powered through pain, saying nothing. Working through pain is a badge of honor for many California employees, especially those who earn seniority and credibility with their service. You’ve burned through dozens of shoes and worn out many more gloves, and yet you can’t remember a day when you had a work accident, and your reputation for reliability is untarnished. After years of powering through the physical punishment the job brings, your back, knees, hands and shoulders are aching more and more, and you finally decide that you need to get help. You ask your employer for medical treatment, but your claim is denied because your injury was not caused by a specific accident. Your claim is denied even though you have hard-earned seniority for years of service.
Employers, particularly public agencies, are constantly arguing for the elimination of cumulative trauma claims. These are the people they would hurt most in doing so.
George Jones was a 28-year veteran police officer in Southern California whose career ended much sooner than he expected. Like many veteran employees, George’s career was forced to end prematurely because he could no longer perform the daily tasks required of his job. In his case, he could no longer sit and stand for long periods, lift heavy objects or run. His department could not keep him in a modified job and he was let go.
Like so many other cops, throughout his career, George suffered minor injuries that often only required first aid and a few days off here and there before he was back on the job. George filed about two dozen minor injury reports throughout his years on the force.
And like so many workers, over the span of his career, George’s job took its toll. One of his primary complaints of injury was to his lower back, which became increasingly worse with constant pain. George’s repeated lower-back injuries now blended into one long stream of pain and disability. His quality of life at work and at home was diminishing.
Despite his love of the job and need to support his family, George ended his career reluctantly; he had a goal of several more years of service and was in line for promotion. His plan for life after law enforcement included many of his labors of love, mostly focused on outdoor activities like hiking, camping and sports activities with his wife, children and grandchildren.
John Doe, who requested to have his real name withheld for legal reasons, is a veteran firefighter in Southern California. He holds the rank of battalion chief, having served 31 years with his department. He and his wife of 30 years have two children and a grandchild, age 4. John always planned to work as a firefighter for a full 35 years, retire with a regular service pension and enjoy his retirement with his family.
After years of performing arduous firefighting work on a repetitive basis, John is now paying the price for being a dedicated public servant. He has undergone two neck surgeries to repair herniated discs, and recently underwent a complicated and painful lower-back surgery that will leave him with limited ability to lift over 20 pounds. He has injured both knees on the job and has now developed significant arthritis that will eventually require total knee replacements.
These are examples of cumulative and continuous trauma. For 60 years, California law has recognized the cumulative effects of the stress and strains of employment on its workers. In John’s case, it’s a result of 31 years of wearing turnout gear and equipment (including his helmet) that weighs well over 80 pounds. Wearing that gear while engaged in stair and ladder climbing, heavy lifting and carrying has placed undue stress on his spine and knees, forcing him into an early and unwanted disability retirement. More importantly, the effects of his cumulative trauma injury will rob John of his golden years with his family.
For George and the many working Californians who, through no fault of their own, lose their jobs to disability late in their careers, it means being thrown into economic uncertainty and facing retirement having to learn to exist with a lesser quality of life than he and his family had planned. However, George does have some peace of mind knowing that he has workers’ compensation coverage to support his continuing, and most likely lifetime, medical care needs. Without medical care, George, like so many, would be in a world of hurt.
John and George have paid the price for being senior public safety officers. They’re now eligible for workers’ compensation for the effects of their cumulative trauma injuries. They will never get back that which has been taken from them, namely their health and quality of life. Some of the power players in employment and in the workers’ compensation insurance industry would like to take away or severely limit compensation for wear-and-tear cumulative trauma injuries. Their motivation to eliminate these types of claims is plain and simple: to save money by not paying claims. Imagine getting to the finish line years before your expected retirement date to find that they’re fighting your pension and there is no savings, no safety net and no recognition for your service.
John, George and others like them gave a lifetime to their departments. They should now be compensated for everything that was taken from them. We can’t let insurers or anyone else take away the safety net for cumulative trauma. Eliminating such claims would be wrong and immoral. Let’s work together to ensure that never happens.