Pro Publica has investigated Arkansas-based Tyson Foods and its state-by-state political efforts to bend workers compensation systems in employers’ interest.
This is an old story in Arkansas, of course. The article notes that political work here was the foundation of much that came after. For its part, Tyson denied out-of-the-ordinary efforts in a written response to Pro Publica’s questions and said its interest was in safe practices and health workers. The article notes:
Tyson self-insures, meaning it pays nearly all of its claims from its own pocket. When workers are injured, they’re usually sent to a Tyson nurse at the plant. Their claims are processed by Tyson adjusters. And in many states, the company even has its own managed-care unit, handpicking the doctors that workers can see and advising those doctors on light-duty jobs injured employees might be able do.
Tyson said the system allows it to provide better medical care for its workers and help them get back on the job.
Worker advocates say Tyson’s approach allows it to deny workers necessary medical care and force them back to dangerous jobs before they’re ready.
Tyson says its efforts in safety have produced a reduction in injury claims. Worker advocates question whether some injuries are being reported.
Arkansas was a template for changes that Tyson has sought in other states. Writes Pro Publica:
In 1993, Tyson’s home state of Arkansas became one of the first to overhaul its workers’ comp system after rates rose 60 percent from 1986 to 1992.
By then, the company founded during the Great Depression had become America’s largest poultry processor, as well as Arkansas’ biggest employer and political contributor.
Tyson and the state chamber of commerce pushed lawmakers hard for a package of reforms to cut employers’ costs. Until then, business and labor had always negotiated changes to the workers’ comp law, often with Tyson serving as a management representative.
But this time, the chamber bypassed a labor-management committee set up by the governor and drove a bill over the objections of the state AFL-CIO.
“The business community in particular and people in general were concerned about the rising rates,” said former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who sponsored the bill. “Tyson as a large employer with people who had a lot of workplace injuries or were exposed to dangerous conditions, they had a large interest in workers’ comp.”
The new law drastically changed rules considered part of the bedrock of the system.
It narrowed the list of injuries that were considered work-related, raised the bar for workers to prove their jobs caused their injuries, required more objective medical evidence, gave employers and insurers more control over workers’ medical care and made it harder for workers to qualify as permanently disabled.
Labor leaders decried the new law. “Congratulations to business and industry; let them enjoy their bloody victory,” said state AFL-CIO president J. Bill Becker. “God help the widows, orphans and injured workers of Arkansas!”
A national insurance ratings bureau estimated at the time that the law cut benefits for the most severely disabled workers by 20 percent and medical and lost wage benefits for all workers by more than 10 percent.
While other states such as Oregon had adopted some of the provisions before, Arkansas’ package provided a comprehensive playbook for other states to follow.
But even some on the employers’ side worried that legitimate injuries would go uncovered. Summing up the consequences in a law review article, John Copeland, a business defense lawyer and University of Arkansas professor, said the law left him with an “uneasy feeling.”
“There is no question,” wrote Copeland, who later went to work for Tyson, “that the new act severely curtails and even eliminates many workers’ compensation claims.”
The law didn’t specifically eliminate repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel, which were becoming an epidemic in the early 1990s. But some critics say it effectively accomplished the same thing by making it tougher for workers to qualify.
“That was really the thing that was costing Tyson,” said Laura McKinnon, an attorney who represented workers opposing the bill. “That’s why Tyson got so involved back then because they were having so much trouble with carpal tunnel at the time.”
Tyson said, “The purpose of the reform act was to streamline workers’ compensation.”
The article details how a former Workers Comp commissioner in Arkansas, Allyn Tatum, went to work for Tyson and became a key player in its efforts. He helped write the 1993 Arkansas law. He’s retired now, but has remained politically active. He was a key campaigner in now-Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood’s first race for Court of Appeals, which handles a big load of workers comp cases. Tyson put $7,000 into her race.
Pro Publica writes, too, the familiar story about placement of business-friendly people on the Arkansas workers comp commission and pressure on administrative law judges seen as too friendly to workers. One, Eileen Harrison, sued over her firing after pressure Tyson applied on Gov. Mike Huckabee. It had the desired chilling effect, the article says.
“We were already feeling the pressure,” recalled C. Michael White, an administrative law judge at the time. “Now we had proof of what would happen if we didn’t decide cases in favor of employers.”
The article delves into pressure applied in Iowa and in passing friendlier law in Oklahoma, with the help of wining and dining of key politicians.
UPDATED: Tyson Foods provided a statement to the Times on the Pro Publica reporting:
We care about our employees – we call them Team Members – and don’t want anyone hurt the job. That’s why we have programs and policies in place to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. We employ almost 500 health and safety professionals in such areas as occupational safety, industrial hygiene, health care and ergonomics. In addition to safety training, there are hundreds of hourly Team Members involved in safety and ergonomic committees and on plant emergency teams.
If someone does get hurt on the job, we’re committed to making sure they get the support they need, including quality medical care and workers compensation benefits, if the injury results in time away from work. We invest a lot of time and money recruiting and training our Team Members so if they get hurt we want to help them get back on the job as soon as their physician says they can.