Laurie Goodman Editorial in CST on Sunday
Some lawmakers are in workers’ corner
LAURIE GOODMAN – Perspective | Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2009 12:00 am
Legislators who sit on the Joint Judiciary Committee recently spoke their truth, and while dismaying, it may have created an opportunity to confront that truth and attempt to do something meaningful to improve the rights and lives of the workers and their families who call Wyoming “home.”
Since statehood, our legislators have struggled with their relationship with our blue-collar workers. Dependent on the money generated from the extraction and sale of our natural resources, we need these workers for our very economic survival. Without them, there would be nothing to truck, no way to mine or drill, and nothing to sell.
But instead of forming a healthy partnership with our workers, the fear of this dependence has resulted in laws that set up a system of separateness and rivalry. Our Constitution restricts the ability of workers to unite in order to have a big enough political voice to protect their interests; and it shields employers from liability for their own negligence in workers’ injuries or deaths so long as they pay into Workers Comp. Not surprisingly, the employers in our state have earned the distinction of having the highest rate of workplace fatalities in the nation — more than three times the national average — even though the exact same industries operate far more safely in other states.
While this sad fact has occurred under the watch of many governors and legislators, the issue routinely generates enough interest to occasionally call for more voluntary OSHA programs and erect more billboards along our highways to “improve safety awareness.” This year, when the public complained yet again, the governor predictably appointed another Safety Work Group who has been following the script rather nicely since April. They’ve held another Safety Conference up in Casper with employers who flock to their own Safety Center to publicize their safety programs, inform the public of their sincere commitment, and point fingers at the workers who don’t follow the corporate guidelines. Corporate lobbyists have been appointed to head all the subcommittees and corporate safety officers have attended countless meetings with endless conference calls to develop a list of recommendations that promise even more voluntary OSHA programs and even more billboards.
But this year, Judiciary Committee Chairmen Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, and Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, proposed a different approach to finally right this wrong: the mother of an 18-year-old Gillette boy who had no training and was killed in the oil patch after working there for three months received only $4,500 from Workers Comp for his burial; a 52-year-old Riverton man was killed in the nation’s second largest gas field after the operator didn’t bother to ensure its drilling company had a routine bolt put in place that would have prohibited his death; a 26-year-old Evanston father of two young sons laid hurt in the cellar of a gas rig for an hour before he was found and air-lifted to the hospital, where he died later of massive head injuries. Not one of the oil and gas operators involved in these accidents has been brought to justice for their own negligence or lack of enforcement of their own safety programs. Not one.
After Riverton Mayor John Vincent brought these families to the Legislature to tell their heartfelt stories, Chairmen Ross and Gingery proposed legislation that would go beyond voluntary corporate programs and actually provide the right to workers to hold negligent companies accountable for their own actions that contribute to these deaths. The idea is that if a company can be held legally accountable, they will work harder to avoid the accident. In the midst of the outcry from the various corporate lobbyists as to why their corporations should not be held accountable for their own negligence, attorney Larry Wolfe brought the hearing to a halt when he blatantly encouraged the legislators to “separate their hearts from their heads” and not be misled by the heartfelt stories brought forth by these families when using their heads to write the laws that could hold oil and gas operators accountable for their own negligence.
And in a second, the innate and silent fear that is our history, perceptibly engulfed the legislators in that room and the “heartfelt bill” was defeated. I, for one, have been privileged to follow my heart and help these men and their families to bring their stories to the legislators — the people who are elected to protect the rights and interests of our citizens. I do not believe that it is healthy to separate matters of the heart from the logic of the head and in fact, I believe it is the responsibility of all mankind to pursue all avenues, including the state Legislature, to seek ways to reconnect our hearts and heads to improve the world we live in.
Sen. Katherine Sessions, D-Cheyenne, shook her head in her hands and reminded her colleagues that there is a moral obligation of all people, including elected officials and corporate employers, to protect the rights of our fellow man, even if that means allowing lawsuits that seek justice. May the wisdom of our legislators like Katherine Sessions, Keith Gingery, Tony Ross, George Bagby, Joe Barbuto and Mayor John Vincent eventually see the light of day in Wyoming.
Laurie D. Goodman is a lobbyist for Worker Safety PAC.