September 1st, 2005 by

With my mind reeling from images of devastation in the aftermath of Katrina, I try to focus for a moment just on the implications for workers compensation. The hurricane hit on a weekend, so most people were not working. But some were — working for companies that may have been obliterated: no payroll records, no employment records, nothing left. How would you prove that you were an employee? How can you file a claim when the entire apparatus governing workers compensation has disintegrated?
We tell employees that the first step in managing injuries is to report to your supervisor and then secure appropriate medical treatment. In all this chaos, how can I possibly find my supervisor? How can I secure medical treatment when the hospitals are on the verge of collapse, their generators running out of gas, their harried personnel stretched to the limit? I hope I don’t need an ambulance, because there aren’t any — there aren’t any roads, for that matter. There is no way for the medical provider to verify insurance coverage or talk to my employer. When I list my home address, does it matter if the building has been lifted off the foundation and collapsed on a lot three blocks north?
Old Cases are History
What happens to the hundreds of cases in litigation prior to the hurricane? From law offices to government offices, the files will be inaccessible for months and may have been destroyed. The people familiar with the details are living in distant cities or have disappeared altogether. Indeed, the claimants themselves may or may not be alive to pursue their day in court. Are the key witnesses still alive and if so, how can we possibly find them? What happens to statutory time limits when the courts are under water?
Unacceptable Risks
We can assume that many of the rescue workers are employed. They may be covered by workers comp. They face ubiquitous and unprecedented exposures: fetid water covering everything; bodies floating along with oil, excrement and chemicals; no running water or toilets; a simmering rage among the desparate people they are trying to help. Toxic mold will be a constant risk in the coming months. If you follow the general duty of clause of OSHA literally — as we are all supposed to do — you cannot allow anyone to work, because under these horrendous conditions there is absolutely no way you can provide a safe workplace.
Our World = Third World
It is eerie to watch these third world images of despair and dysfunction rolling out in our own country. It’s something we are used to seeing in remote corners of the world, not on our own shores. But this is all too real: the total disintegration of civil society, the uselessness of the usual management “best practices.” This is a crisis where the most rudimentary needs — food, clothing, water and shelter — cannot be provided. Between the Christmas tsunami and Katrina, two things have become all too clear: when confronted with the full brunt of nature’s power, we are defenseless against the blow and pitifully ineffective in response. Let’s keep that in mind when we position our species — and our country — in the forefront of all things civilized.

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