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The Road to Recovery

For some school employees, getting hurt on the job is just the beginning of the bad news.

By John Rosales

It was on a bitterly cold and icy morning that Lisa Jones took a wrong step while shoveling snow at school. The custodian ended up with not only a slipped disk, but also a four-year legal battle that made her physical pain pale in comparison.

Her troubles involved a doctor’s misdiagnosis, another physician’s miscommunication, and an insurance company hired by the school district that didn’t want to honor its workers’ compensation agreement.

Jones, of the Triad School District in Troy, Illinois, fell in December 2000. The first doctor she visited mistook her muscle spasms and headaches as flu symptoms. When her fingers started to go numb, she finally received X-rays 10 days later, and workers’ comp took effect.

“Document everything,” says custodian Lisa Jones of filing a workers’ comp claim.
When Jones traveled out of town the following February, she wheeled her luggage to the airport. Her doctor noted this activity in a subsequent report to the insurance company.

“They saw that note and stopped payments [for medical treatments, time off, and medicine],” says Jones, a member of the Triad Custodial and Maintenance Association. “They said my suffering was due to carrying luggage.”

With her doctor’s support, Jones tried to appeal, but was assigned to a different claims adjuster every time she called. “I had six or seven adjusters who would work up a deal and then not honor it,” she says. After four years of litigation, Jones settled with the insurer for less than $15,000.

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Act guarantees the right to a workplace free from recognized hazards, on-the-job injuries and illnesses are more common for education support professionals (ESPs) than any other group of school employees. Workers in every ESP job category are particularly vulnerable to developing repetitive stress injuries. For example:

  • Bus drivers repeatedly open and close manually operated doors, and depress the clutch and brake pedals.
  • Food service workers repeatedly lift heavy equipment, stand for long shifts, and reach above shoulder level and below knee level or across counters.
  • Technical service and clerical workers perform repetitive keystroke motions on computers.
  • Skilled trades workers and custodians are subject to repeated muscle stress from tools, prolonged kneeling, and bending.
  • Health workers are exposed to diseases and contact with blood and other body fluids.
  • Security staff face psychological stress from dealing with violent student and parent behavior.

Being familiar with injury prevention techniques, liability laws, and insurance coverage is as important as knowing how to do your job, says Marcus Albrecht, a UniServ director with the Illinois Education Association. Workers’ comp “is one of the most complicated areas that members have,” he says. “Nobody knows how it works. It can be interpreted in different ways.”

NEA has developed a checklist for school employees to follow should they develop an injury or illness on the job.

  • Inform your supervisor as soon as possible.
  • Get medical attention immediately and document it.
  • Inform your employer in writing about the injury or illness. Each state has its own deadline for giving notice.
  • File a claim with the state compensation agency.
  • Ask the agency for a hearing if the employer—or its insurance company—refuses or fails to pay workers’ compensation that the state agency has determined you are owed.

In most states, workers’ compensation laws require employers to carry insurance that pays full medical costs and some proportion of lost wages (usually two-thirds of regular pay) for workers with job-related injuries or illnesses. Workers’ comp usually also requires rehabilitation services for disabled workers and death benefits for fatal injuries. It is a “no-fault” system, meaning that employers cannot deny benefits by claiming that the injury was caused by the worker.

During her four years of battling the district’s insurer, Jones missed work and overtime pay she depended on for household bills. “If it hadn’t been for my husband and his job, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” she says, stressing the importance of leaving a paper trail.

“Document everything,” she says. “Get signatures from everyone, and try to get the same caseworker.”

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