What’s Your Life Worth?

Water from Flint MI

First: an update re the last post, for those readers who live in areas without a Kaiser HMO. Kaiser backed down from demanding a two-tier wage structure, and has reached a tentative settlement with the union. Details aren’t forthcoming. I imagine that the wage increase is pretty minimal, certainly less than the current rate of inflation. The membership still has to vote.

Today’s post looks at the worth of a human life in the U.S.—which doesn’t seem to be a whole lot, according to a couple of news items I came across recently. The first was about how little a company pays for killing an employee on the job, the second about how little the State of Michigan is going to pay for poisoning a whole city.

I. Worked to Death

Earlier this month, a shocker of a story appeared in my local paper, The Oregonian: Oregon OSHA, the workplace safety agency fined a landscaping company $14,375 for safety violations that resulted in the death of an employee.

When I mentioned this to a neighbor, she was appalled by the picayune amount. Is a human life worth so little​? Actually the real surprise is that the employer was dinged so much. Oregon OSHA conducted 51 investigations related to worker fatalities in 2020. Those investigations resulted in an average fine of $1,178.

The Oregonian quotes data from the AFL-CIO report, saying that the national average was $13,343. I’m not sure where they get that number. I went to the actual report, where it said the median penalty for killing a worker was $12,144 for federal OSHA, and the median penalty for killing a worker was $6,899 for state OSHA plans.

These numbers do not include contract workers, who aren’t covered by OSHA. More and more employers (e.g. Uber) are hiring people as contractors, and their on-the-job fatality rate was four times that of regular employees. I say was rather than is, because in 2020 the government stopped keeping statistics on them. Statistics aren’t kept on civil servants or postal workers either. But what we do know is that in 2019 around 100,000 workers died from workplace injuries or illnesses.

If the worker is injured or gets sick but doesn’t die, the boss often fails to report. That way he doesn’t get fined, his insurance rates don’t go up, he doesn’t have to pay for new safety equipment or retraining, etc. (I’m aware of this from personal experience—I spent over 15 years helping injured workers find new jobs.) In 2019 employers reported over 3.5 million workplace injuries or illnesses. The actual number is estimated at 7 to 10 million.

II. Poisoned by the State

Also early this month, a federal district judge announced a settlement for the residents of Flint, Michigan. You may remember that in 2014, state officials switched the source of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to a local, polluted river as a money-saving exercise. The water that flowed from people’s taps was contaminated with lead—about 700% of the level considered unsafe. Lead poisoning damages the brain and nervous system (as well as kidneys and digestive organs) and is especially harmful to children. Long lasting effects include mental retardation, increased risk of Alzheimer’s, and infertility.

Lead-contaminated water flowed into the homes of 100,000 people (per Wikipedia, but only 81,000 according to The Guardian.) The settlement would total $626 million, divided according to the damage sustained, with children getting more than adults. Judge Judith Levy calls this “a remarkable achievement” that “sets forth a comprehensive compensation program…” Also proposed, but not yet approved, is that the lawyers in the case would get $200,000 of that money, leaving the citizens of Flint with $426 million.

There is a $1,000 payout cap for adults. Since approximately 70% of the population is over 18, each of 70,000 adults would get $1,000 each, no matter how severe their injuries were. How much medical care do you think that amount would buy? Children would get an average of $10,841 apiece to cover remedial education, as well as a lifetime of medical care and other therapies. Is it any coincidence that the population of Flint is 57% Black, and that 41% of the residents live below the U.S. poverty level?

As for the responsible officials: four staffers resigned and one was fired. The governor and various state and local officials were charged with felonies and misdemeanors, but only one minor conviction was obtained. All the other charges were dismissed or dropped. Funds for the “comprehensive compensation program” will come out of the taxpayer’s pocket—including the taxpayers of Flint, Michigan.*

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*Even Michiganders too poor to pay income tax still pay 6% sales tax on everything from OTC drugs to clothing to medical services provided through a managed care plan, as well as a 16.6% gasoline tax.

3 Responses to What’s Your Life Worth?

  1. Connie O Byrne November 19, 2021 at 1:50 am #

    Very chilling statistics. I can only wish there were someone like you who has the dedication, energy and anger over these issues in every state. I can guarantee that where I live, North Carolina, isn’t any better, possibly worse. We have one of the worst unemployment programs in the country, if not the worst. Unemployment benefits last just 12 weeks and pay you about 40% of what you were making. Our legislators were also leading the charge to end unemployment benefits due to Covid and stop paying out the expanded Federal Relief funds. We are also a “right to work” state and unions are mostly non-existent. The few unions that do exist are powerless and ignored.

    We also are one of the 12 remaining states that still refuse to expand Medicaid. I’m sure NC isn’t alone in having unremitting poverty, widespread food deserts and healthcare inequity. We are also not alone in dealing with the lack of affordable housing. If you are poor in NC you will almost certainly never escape poverty, especially in Charlotte. Inequities in education are also rampant. Budget cuts in education funding due to the last recession have never been restored, even though the state has more money in it’s Rainy Day Fund than ever before.

    Keep on being the voice we need in the wilderness. And thank you for not being afraid to speak the truth we all need to hear.

  2. Martha Shelley November 19, 2021 at 9:09 am #

    Thank you, Connie. I will pass your comment on to others who need to know what’s going on in North Carolina.

  3. Connie O Byrne November 19, 2021 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks. Being UU, you’d think I’d know. Change will come, but not as fast as needed.

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