One hundred and one years ago this week, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, burned to death behind locked doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The tragedy shocked the nation and inspired serious workplace safety reforms in New York and many other states.
It also inspired one Mainer, a child of Damariscotta natives, to join the fight for workers’ rights. That woman, Frances Perkins, later became our country’s first female secretary of labor and was the driving force behind our child labor laws, unemployment benefits and workplace safety laws.
We have come a long way since 1910, thanks in no small part to Maine’s workers’ compensation system, which grew out of Perkins’ work and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
That system, which provides workers with medical care and compensation for injuries in exchange for exempting employers from liability for workplace injuries, saves tens of thousands of injured Mainers from poverty every year.
This crucial safety net, however, is endangered in the hands of the very Legislature that passed it in the first place. The proposed bill, L.R. 2787 from the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, would gut our workers’ compensation system, giving insurance companies unprecedented sway over injured workers and their families.
This law has the potential to affect every Mainer — and to a large extent in ways that are out of their hands. I ask the Legislature not to subject my friends and neighbors to this dangerous game of Russian roulette.
Many of Maine’s industries are dangerous places to work. From shipyards to paper mills, from the woods to the ocean, Mainers go to work every day worrying about safety. But even in professions that we don’t immediately think of as hazardous, the workplace can be a dangerous place.
Nurses strain their backs lifting up patients or are accidentally stuck with a medicated needle. Warehouse workers can tear their shoulders or break a leg lifting heavy weights. And anyone can suffer a fall at work.
I know this all too well. My husband was badly injured at work nine years ago. He lives in chronic pain and can no longer work at all. He has seen his income reduced because of his disabilities. You cannot imagine what it is like to be hurt and unable to work until it happens to you or your family. Our lives changed forever.
The fact is that workplace injuries can happen to anyone, anywhere. When they do happen, they are devastating.
This is why it is so distressing that the legislative committee’s proposal prioritizes insurance companies over the very workers that the system was designed to protect.
Perhaps the most significant example is the provision that would cap compensation for the most severely injured workers at 618 weeks. Benefits would stop when that threshold was reached, even if they are unable to work for the rest of their lives.
It is cruel and unfair to set an arbitrary deadline that cuts an injured workers’ lifeline without any regard for their ability to earn wages. It also ignores just how difficult it is for permanently injured or disabled workers to compete with healthy workers in finding a new job.
There is no clear reason to reform Maine’s workers compensation system. The cost to Maine employers has been declining steadily over the past decades. Employer premiums have been cut in more than half since 1992 even while health insurance premiums — the major costs in the system — have gone up. And the system is still solvent.
This legislation would roll back years of worker protections. And more worryingly, there is no clear method for strengthening those protections in the future. We cannot afford to wipe away laws that took such sacrifices to create.
The workers compensation system has helped my family stay afloat during the last nine years; I don’t know where we would be without it. This is the reality for Maine families who are struggling to survive after a workplace accident resulting in permanent injuries.
Mainers have fought for fairness and safety in the workplace for more than a century. Now is not the time to turn back the clock on workers’ rights in Maine.
Sherry Nadeau has lived in Belgrade for over 10 years with her husband, David, and their three dogs. She began advocating for injured workers after her husband’s accident, and they struggled to navigate the workers compensation system.