What Would You Say?

Wow, what an eventful few months it has been. The re-election of President Obama, the cowardly lame-duck anti-worker “right to work” vote in Michigan, the unimaginable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the “Fiscal Cliff” drama and now the debt ceiling crisis, that’s been a lot to deal with. But sometimes those big macro issues don’t mean much to those wondering how they personally, will get through the next day/week or month.

Among a variety of life-altering events, such as death in the family, divorce, and serious illness, losing one’s job ranks among the highest in stress-causing situations. This can have a profound effect on a person’s emotional well-being, but really, what words can be shared to console someone who has lost their job? The sense of despair is magnified when the loss of the job is for apparently illegitimate reasons, like getting hurt at work.

I met a man right before Thanksgiving who had invested heavily in his future with CAT by moving his large family hundreds of miles to the Peoria-area because he thought he had a secure career working for a highly-regarded Fortune 50 company. As a Supplemental employee, he was working hard to make a good impression in hopes of getting a full-time position.

One day as he was working, a piece of equipment failed and he received a minor injury. The injured worker asked a co-worker who witnessed the incident if he should report it. The co-worker said if it wasn’t reported, he would report it himself because he didn’t want to get into trouble. The worker reported his injury. Immediately, he became concerned that this one instance might cost him his job—he was correct.

Reportedly, this particular piece of equipment had failed in the past while being used by other operators on different shifts, but they had not been injured. Within 24 hours of the incident, the faulty equipment had been replaced. Hours after that, the supplemental worker was terminated for, “failure to follow process”. When asked what process was not followed, the supervisor repeated, “failure to follow process”. That was the only justification given. What can you say to someone in that situation?

Another worker I met this fall had been taking care of her father, a cancer patient. Being a Supplemental, she did not have any Y-time, but her supervisor assured her that all she had to do was tell him when she needed to be off to take care of her Dad and he would approve it. This went on for a number of weeks until one day, she was injured at work. She immediately reported her injury as required. The CAT doctor placed her on Medical Restrictions, which made the injury recordable.

A day after that, she missed work due to a medical issue and called in. When she reported for work the next day, she was terminated for poor attendance. Her supervisor told her that Supplemental workers were not allowed to miss any time for two years. What caused the sudden change of policy; could it have been the recordable injury?

What really struck me about this case is that prior to working at CAT; this woman previously worked for Wal-Mart and K-Mart as a manager. She told me that Wal-Mart would never treat their employees like CAT does—what can you say to that? I didn’t know there was a level of employee relations below Wal-Mart.

Another person I met recently was in management at a large ethanol producing plant in the area before coming to CAT. After she reported a work-related injury, the first aid treatment given at CAT medical would not stop the bleeding. When the worker told the nurse she wanted to go to the hospital and get stitches. The nurse replied that stitches would make the injury recordable, OSHA would have to come in and investigate and management would be upset with the supplemental worker. After being returned to work with a blood-soaked bandage, the worker went to the hospital for stitches and was subsequently fired. She told me that her former employer would never have treated an injured employee like she had been treated. What words can you say to make that better?

The last recent case I’ll talk about is that of a supplemental worker who was weeks from the two-year anniversary and was eagerly anticipating being hired as a full time employee. On more than one occasion during her brief career, she did not report injuries because she feared losing her job.  One day she fell over a trip hazard and was injured badly. Although she wanted to hide her injuries, they were too severe for her to continue on. After reporting the injuries, she was transported to medical in a taxi cab. From medical, she was transported to the Emergency Room in a pick-up truck. It is hard for me to believe that a company that did more than 60 billion dollars’ worth of business last year would make a practice of transporting injured workers in taxi’s and pick-up trucks, but that’s what happened.

While home recovering from her injuries; she received a call from LR telling her that her services were no longer needed. This person was frequently praised for her work and work effort, but now was kicked to the curb like a piece of trash after being injured, how do you explain that?

What would you tell any of the people I’ve described here? How do you answer someone with first-hand knowledge that employers such as Wal-Mart, treat workers better than CAT? Sure management dredged up some minor stuff to cover their asses, instances that didn’t mean anything until there was an injury, but in every occurrence I’ve described, the individuals said that they wish they had not reported their injuries. Is that Vision Zero, the way CAT wants to become a $100 billion dollar company?

The only thing that can be done is for the full-time people to act together to help protect the Supplementals. Most of the Supplemental workers I’ve spoken with have never had a union job before. They don’t know that the grievance procedure applies equally to them and that union activity is one of the two exceptions (the other is personal prejudice) for which a grievance can be filed on their behalf in the event of a discharge.

Most Supplementals don’t know the names of their co-workers, why is that? Unless you’re really famous, most of us have a first, middle and last name, introduce yourself to new people. If there are safety issues in the workplace, it is management’s responsibility to fix them. You don’t have to let someone work in an unsafe environment; ask for your union safety representative to help you reach an acceptable solution, that’s union activity.

Try to put yourself into the shoes of someone who was unjustly fired after getting hurt and has nowhere to turn except to his or her union brothers and sisters. How would it make you feel to hear that your co-workers “didn’t want to get involved” or were too worried about themselves to even talk about what they saw or knew about the incident?  What could someone say to you to make you feel better as you watched your hopes and dreams slip away? What would you say?