Columns » Ernest Dumas

Up against the Wal-Mart

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Honest uncomplaining physical toil is not an estimable thing anymore and it is apt not to be rewarded. Even the complacent courts tell us this is so. The weekly syllabus of the Arkansas Court of Appeals can be a primer in contemporary social conditions, and it was last week. A woman named Maria C. Pina, who was injured on the job while she was toiling for one of the Wal-Mart enterprises in north Arkansas, finally got her day in court, even if it was only in the form of lawyers filing briefs for and against her. If her lawyer had briefed her on the modern history of workers’ injury claims in judicial proceedings in Arkansas then she surely was not shocked when the effort produced exactly nothing. The workers compensation law and the administrative system have been fixed so that workers do not expect to win when corporations like Wal-Mart resist their claims. What makes Maria Pina’s case odd is that the court itself seemed to be a little shocked at what it was doing. It thought the result was perverse but suggested that injustice was a thing for the legislature in its wisdom to correct. The judges may have yearned to show a little humanity from time to time themselves even if employers and the state agency that is supposed to protect workers would not. But the law now does not permit it. One appellate judge observed not so long ago that the pendulum had swung so far against workers that we should consider giving them the right again to sue employers for injuries. But the movement now is in the other direction, to make it harder for anyone aggrieved by corporations to get relief in court. The circumstances that brought Maria Pina to court were not all that rare. She went to work for Sam’s Club in the travel department in February 1999 doing several unskilled and repetitive tasks, among them stuffing envelopes and folding promotional T-shirts. In October she told her supervisor that her fingers were becoming numb and that the numbness was moving up her forearms to her elbows. So they put her to work punching figures into a computer all day. She didn’t seek medical attention. She was so proficient that they promoted her to a job taking payments, but then Sam’s moved the travel office out of state and she was reassigned to Wal-Mart Associates, where she reviewed invoices eight hours a day, using her right hand to key numbers into the computer while turning invoice pages with her left hand. The problems persisted but she didn’t seek medical attention until a series of car accidents starting in March 2000. Physicians, including Wal-Mart’s, diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and concluded that she was partially disabled by it. Doctors said it arose from the work — well, all but the company doc, who said it could have been caused by lots of things. So in 2002 Pina decided to fill out the paper work for worker’s compensation. Wal-Mart said no. And, you know what? The boss had her. Under Arkansas’s zany worker’s compensation law — radically amended in 1993 to thwart access to compensation for injured workers and their families, especially for the repetitive-motion injuries like Pina’s — the time for her to apply for benefits had expired. She should have filed in 1999 when she first reported the symptoms to her supervisor. It makes no difference that she didn’t know what the ailment was or what caused it. She did not know it but the clock was running. An administrative law judge at Springdale, one Elizabeth Danielson, conducted a hearing, held the company liable and said Pina was entitled to some temporary and long-term benefits because the statute of limitations did not start to run until the injury was diagnosed and had cost her a loss of earnings. It is surprising to learn that the state Workers Compensation Commission still has such judges. It began in the late 1990s to purge examiners betraying much sympathy for workers. But the commission itself, which rarely evinces such weakness, quickly discounted her opinion. It concluded that the statute of limitations had run on her claim because she didn’t file it when the numbness started. The Court of Appeals implied that it might have agreed with the law judge but that it was bound by law to uphold the commission unless it could say with certainty that no rational person would see it the commission’s way. What can I do?, Pilate asked. You would think that the largest corporation in the universe might find it in its heart to consent to some balm for Maria C. Pina for the pain she endured and the earning power she forsook when she worked for the company three hard years in classical repetitive-motion jobs. Failing that, you would think the state, which was supposed to be the tribune of working folks in the 70 years since workers compensation was formed, might find a way to help. The Court of Appeals was obliged to say that by denying Maria Pina’s claim it and the state were punishing employees who were willing to “grin and bear it” when they were hurt and thus encourage employees to file claims “at the first hint of pain.” But that, it said, is now the law in Arkansas, where, it might have added, the law is made by the rich and powerful.

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