Willamette Week April 28, 1999

In the Line of Duty

On April 28 workers across the nation will honor those who lost their lives on the clock. Although Workers Memorial Day traditionally commemorates workplace deaths, in Oregon that focus is rapidly widening to include those who have been hurt on the job, as well. The shift stems in part from the rising influence of an unconventional lobby--injured workers.

Advocacy groups representing injured workers are a relatively new phenomenon. Most sprang up in response to far-reaching reforms in Oregon's workers' compensation system in 1989, changes that made it much more difficult for workers to receive disability payments and to select their own doctors and health-care providers.

Though the reforms led to dramatic savings for employers, workers say the system treats them unfairly. "It's like a war zone," says Billy Washington, 55, a Portland truck driver and grandfather who injured his knee three years ago picking up a barrel of printing-press solvent. His employer's insurance company said his knee trouble was the result of an injury 10 years before and refused to compensate him. Washington was furious. He got involved in the Injured Workers Organizing Project (affiliated with the Workers Organizing Committee), which now boasts 160 members and is active in testifying before legislative panels.

Other groups include the Injured Workers Alliance and Together Injured Employees Succeed. These workers are beginning to make their presence felt at quasi-legislative venues such as the Management-Labor Advisory Committee, a panel of management and labor representatives in Salem that screens proposed bills dealing with workers' compensation. "I can't tell you how important it is to me to have injured workers in the room," says Jennifer Webber, a lobbyist for the Oregon Workers' Compensation Attorneys. "They have been very effective."

For more information:

Injured Workers Alliance: 650-2479, www.injuredworker.org

Together Injured Employees Succeed: 520-1909

Injured Workers Organizing Project: 236-0825

--Chris Lydgate