Irwin Aronson: Stripping Workers’ Compensation, Socializing Risk, Privatizing Rewards
Lead in music (Leroy Van Dyke – “The Auctioneer Song”):
[Rick Smith]: Well, you know, that sounds like what’s going on here in the State Legislature as they’re hocking off state assets. They want to sell of the state Wine & Spirits shops. Hey! Let’s get rid of education…let’s privatize that. Oh, yeah! What about the roads and bridges? Yeah, let’s sell that! Let’s privatize it all. Sell off what is yours and what is mine. And I go back to are there any worker protections in Conservative World? I point to this story in Michigan, House Bill 5002, where they want to be able to say, “you know what? Injured worker? If there’s a job out there that we think you can do…well, whether you can get it or not, whether you’re hired or not, were going to take money away from you.” Isn’t that beautiful? Welcome to Conservative World. Amazing stuff.
Anyway, I’ve got our good friend Attorney Irwin Aronson on the phone here to talk to us a little bit about these privatization schemes and maybe a little about this workers’ comp thing. Irwin, thanks for taking time for me.
[Irwin Aronson]: Hey, good to be here, Rick. Good to hear your voice and it’s a wonderful week here in Pennsylvania.
[Rick Smith]: As the attacks come fast and furious. You know, I look at this comp bill that they’re trying to push through in Michigan…and, again…you know there’s part of me that says let’s just do away with workers’ comp altogether and give me my Constitutional right to sue back.
[Irwin Aronson]: Well, I don’t disagree with you much and I know that I’m an old guy with gray whiskers, so I have a memory. This is just one more piece in Michigan of a very old wine in a new bottle. Back in 1996 and again in 1999, we faced exactly the same kind of attack on workers’ comp right here in Pennsylvania. My good friend and colleague, Dave Wildeman and I described it in our effort, which was only successful in part to beat it, as “phantom jobs with fictional income.” What they proposed to do back then in Pennsylvania—and I’m sure we’re going to see it again in this environment—was that they would make up a job somewhere that allegedly was available within a workers’ comp claimant’s limitations and conditions, and if that person didn’t get the job, they would attribute that phantom job that nobody could identify with any precision—it was just a general job that might exist in the economy—they would attribute that fictional income from that phantom job to the individual. And, that didn’t have one impact, it had two impacts.
The first impact is that it cut his or her benefits to which he or she was entitled, immediately. But, the second impact, which is far more significant, is that if one is totally disabled under the workers’ compensation law, one is entitled to benefits as long as one remains totally disabled. But if one is partially disabled, in other words, can do some work—like the phantom job they would attribute with this fictional income—then you’re considered to be, not totally disabled, but partially disabled. And, Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation law says that anybody who’s partially disabled, regardless of how severe that partial disability is, is entitled to a maximum of 500 weeks of benefits. Slightly less than ten years. After that? Tough luck buddy, you’re on your own. That’s the other cynical point.
I will tell you, Michigan’s law, on that point, is very similar. So, part of it is assigning a phantom job with fictional income to a claimant to cut their benefits immediately. Part of it is to terminate their lifetime disability compensation into 500 weeks period of compensation no matter what the dimension of their injuries. And, we have to remember that workers’ compensation is a replacement, as you indicated, for your normal, otherwise existing, in every other context, right to sue people who hurt you. This is a wildly cynical approach.
[Rick Smith]: What it is, is the attack on workers’ rights across the country. It’s just the next—basically from every direction—attack on workers’ rights.
[Irwin Aronson]: Yeah, it absolutely is. One of these weeks when the opportunity presents itself, I would like to spend time doing a segment exclusively on workers’ compensation, and the history of workers’ compensation in the United States and here in Pennsylvania, because there was a social contract that gave rise to workers’ compensation. Workers gave up their right to sue in return for what was supposed to be a guarantee of income when they get hurt trying to earn a living. This was not merely to protect workers, but also to protect employers from the uncertainty of the outcome of classic law suits. We lost our right to sue, they lost their right to contest. Ever since that time, in 1913 here in Pennsylvania, there has been a march toward constant erosion of the right of workers who are victims of the workplace. Anybody who describes people who qualify for workers’ compensation any other way is a liar or a fool.
[Rick Smith]: We look forward to that segment very soon, because I think it’s an important topic and I think these attacks…pointing these attacks out is extremely important. I did want to get to something else as well.
As we’re looking around, this privatization commission and all of the privatization that is coming—House Bill 310 and 11, P3s—Public Private Partnerships, privatizing our transportation systems in places like Allegheny County, privatizing our liquor stores—Wine & Spirit shops. To me, again, more theft from people like you and me, handing off to the Koch Brothers and the billionaire class.
[Irwin Aronson]: No question that it is. It just shocks me. I think that we need a privatization commission to determine how privatized our government has already become, because very clearly, the people who are coming up with these ideas are on the public payroll. They swore and oath to protect us, to protect our Constitution, to protect our laws and all they are doing is advocating the demise of those things.
I will tell you, this March, whether they call it “vouchers” that Governor Corbett is advocating, which is the privatization of education; or, they call it the sale of the State Wine & Spirit shops, which is the privatization of a very successful corporate enterprise in which you and I and everyone in Pennsylvania are beneficial shareholders, that cuts our taxes by $400 or more million a year while providing family-sustaining jobs, with family-sustaining benefits in every single county in this state; or, it’s privatization of our crumbling bridges and roads in the so-called, phoney “P3s” in which just yesterday they stripped out any protection for our community standards in the legislation that they are now considering to create them. There is a thread here, and you hit the nail on the head. Our government has been privatized already and they’re just trying to now swallow up our assets that we own. Maybe, just maybe, somebody ought to privatize that Capitol building and lock the door. If they’re not in session, they may be able to do a little less violence to us.
[Rick Smith]: Yeah and I’m hoping for the holidays to come quickly, because the attacks that I’ve seen and I look at this Privatization Commission that they’ve put together. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “what” they’re privatizing. And, you look at some of the names on that list…there’s nothing that those people believe that is in the purview of government. They don’t believe in government, they hate government, and they want everything privatized and profitized.
[Irwin Aronson]: With all due respect, I don’t disagree with you often, but I disagree with you right now.
[Rick Smith]: Alright.
[Irwin Aronson]: They don’t hate government, they love government because government socializes their risk and privatizes their reward. And that’s what this is about.
I’m old enough now to recall the days when urban mass transit systems were all private. After the privateers wrung the last penny of profit out of them, they ran away and abandon them. That’s why we have a Capitol Area Transit in Harrisburg, a Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia, a Port Authority of Allegheny County out in the greater Pittsburgh area, and so many others in towns as small as State College, as large as Allentown and Scranton. That’s the reality. These have all been private before. None of this is new. The Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg that is now only half of a bridge used to be a toll bridge. When the toll operator found that it needed to be repaired, he turned it over to the city. The Market Street bridge in Harrisburg and virtually all the bridges in Pittsburgh and many of the bridges in Philadelphia were all private toll bridges at one time, owned by private entrepreneurs when it was entrepreneurial. As soon as they ran into trouble, they ran like hell from them and turned them over to we taxpayers to finance them. And now that we have paid for decades to fix them up, they want to steal them off of us again!
[Rick Smith]: And that’s why I look at House Bills 310 and 11, especially 10 when you’re talking about transportation, going back doing exactly what you’re saying. Now that we’ve built these transit systems back up, now that they’re functional, they’re working, people are using them, now, the profiteers, they want them back.
[Irwin Aronson]: Profiteers-Privateers. We have a problem in our society and the problem we have in a nutshell here in Pennsylvania and throughout the country, is that we are acquiescing in socializing risk while we also acquiesce in privatizing the rewards associated with that risk. And that just cannot stand.
[Rick Smith]: How do we stop it?
[Irwin Aronson]: We stop it they way we talk about on this show very frequently. We get up, stand up and don’t give up our rights. We participate in this political process. Every time we get frustrated by it is a reason to get more involved in it. Ultimately, while they can out-spend us, there are more of us than there are of them and we can out-vote them if we merely exercise our franchise.
[Rick Smith]: There you go. Contact them early, often. Let them know, no more privatization, please.
[Irwin Aronson]: Let them know: no more privatization. But, let them know we’re watching. That they can’t do things in Harrisburg and Washington and tell a different story when they come home on our dime for the weekend.
[Rick Smith]: Excellent point. Irwin, always great talking to you. Have a great weekend, congratulations to our daughter on getting married, nothing but the best thoughts from us here at the program for her and for you and your family as well.
[Irwin Aronson]: Thanks so much! This will be the best weekend ever, because my little girl is going to become a Mrs.
[Rick Smith]: I’m dreading that day myself. Thanks so much, Irwin.
[Irwin Aronson]: Thank you!