Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Definition of Irony

Two accidents at a company separated by five years and different circumstances, but they illuminate a stark contrast in outcomes due to laws set up to protect businesses at the expense of the worker. It took me years to put the accident and the way I ended up being treated by the company behind me. I haven’t thought about any of this for years, until I saw a thirty second news clip that stated a jury had awarded Quad/Graphics sixty million dollars for the fire that destroyed a building at their Lomira plant five years ago. That was the whole sound bite, but that was all it took. Everything came crashing back in my mind and I can’t help comparing the outcomes of these two accidents.

No one from the company has ever heard my side of what happened to me during my recuperation and rehab from the accident. To be honest, no one ever asked or seemed to even care all that much. I took great pride in my job, and felt I did it very well. I had also just finished Quad’s Leadership Development program which, at that time, you had to be recommended by your supervisor just to get into the program. My plan was to continue working my way up in the company and eventually retiring from the company. Even after my accident I planned on returning to work as soon as I could. My wife realized before I did that I was not going to be able to work again, and started looking for work without telling me because I was so adamant about going back and did not want her going out and working. I even tried to keep working after the accident because I didn't want to miss work, but that only lasted a day or two as the pain was just too intense.

After my first surgery my doctor at Quad/Med said I would have made a good soldier. At first I didn't understand this, but he went on to explain that after looking at my MRI films and reports he said most men would have been crawling into the office in pain from such a badly blown disc. Throughout the whole ordeal, he was the only person in the company who seemed to truly believe me and be on my side. For his belief in me he was eventually told he was not allowed to see me any more by the head of Quad/Med in Pewaukee.

While I was seeing my back surgeon, I was also going to rehab, and my doctor at Quad wanted to check in with me once a month just to oversee everything and make sure everything was going okay with my recovery. The head of Quad/Med in Pewaukee told him he had to stop seeing me because he was wasting Quad’s time. He said, “We are running a business here, not an old printer’s home.” That’s really looking out for the employee’s best interest isn’t it?

I ended up having four surgeries, and attended rehab on different occasions. The last time was at the West Allis location. When a person goes through rehabilitation, you would expect the physical therapist you are working with to work with you; to be on your side if you will. I felt from the beginning though that this person was questioning everything that I tried to convey to him. As with most rehab we started slowly and worked into more strenuous routines. The injury by the way left me with severe nerve damage in the L4-L5 nerve root so that as the routines progressed they inflamed the nerve root and caused me intense pain. There were some exercises that I couldn’t do at all such as riding a stationary bike because the hip rotation really irritated the nerve root. I tried to explain to my physical therapist that I was in increasing pain and there were some things that I wasn’t able to do. He seemed to be very reluctant to believe me at all, but finally agreed to let me do what I could. After awhile it became apparent that the rehab was actually making me worse so my surgeon pulled me out completely. After some tests we found out the extent of the damage to the nerves which also helped explain the numbness in my left leg.

I always felt like the physical therapist didn’t believe me, and after I did leave Quad I asked for all of our families’ medical records so we could give them to the next doctor we went to. I found some of the reports from this physical therapist and read through them. Imagine my surprise when I read one of them that says, “Every time we start talking about going back to work, patient’s pain seems to increase.” Now, when I read this I was really…well, pissed! This is a physical therapist who is supposed to be working with ME to help ME get better but seems more interested in trying to find a way to prove that I am some how faking my injuries. Was he working in my best interest or the company’s?

Through four surgeries, Quad never sent me as much as a card. Nothing.

When I came in after my first surgery with a workman’s compensation question the only thing they wanted to know is where the ladder came from that broke. They wanted to know if it was purchased from an outside company or if Quad built it. Unfortunately for me it was built by Quad. It was old, rotten, and there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it because of a law in Wisconsin that says you can’t sue your employer even if they are at fault for the accident. When the women who take care of the work comp insurance found out that Quad was the one who built the ladder they told me, “Sorry we were at fault.” Well, it was nice to hear someone from the company admit it but it sure didn’t do me any good.

Legally, Quad did nothing wrong. In fact, on paper I quit working at Quad so it is all wrapped up pretty as you please with a nice bow on it. Quad offered me a desk job that I was physically unable to do. I had no choice but to tell them that I was physically unable to do the job. Two days later in the mail I got a letter from Quad that made it sound like they bent over backwards to accommodate me and I “abandoned” them. I was furious but knew there was nothing else I could do. I tried more than once to go back to work after the accident, but the nerve damage was just too severe. According to the surgeon, I came within hours of losing bowel and bladder function permanently.

And now my right leg, along with being numb from the knee down, is starting to waste away. I asked my pain management doctor how far it will go, or if I will completely lose use of it eventually? The doctor just shrugged his shoulders. No one knows how bad my leg is going to get. At least now I can show my leg as proof of my back injury.

No, Quad is not legally responsible for any of this. But at what point does a company that prides itself on taking care of its employees do the right thing on a moral level? On Quad’s own website they proudly proclaim to be for the employee;

“Quad/Graphics is a leading printer and employer, and we remain fully committed to realizing Harry’s vision of finding “a better way” — whether that's putting ink on paper or servicing customers beyond expectation or taking care of employees and their families.

At any point in my situation was I or my family “taken care of” by the company?

I used to sit in the employee stock ownership meetings with giddy excitement. We were always told in those meetings that we would never get rich working for someone else, and that was one of the reasons that we were part owners in the company. We were told that if we stayed with the company long enough, the company would make sure we would retire rich. We were always given examples of the “millionaires” Quad had already made from employee ownership. What happens to those of us who get hurt and can’t work anymore? Does the company owe the employee or the employee’s family anything if it is the company’s fault that they can’t continue? Where does that statement come into play when this happens?

It seems ironic that the same company can get $60 million for another accident that involved a building. Sure the building held a lot of valuable equipment and product, but wasn’t all of that insured? If this accident is worth that much, how much is my accident worth? My ability to earn a living was all but crushed along with my discs and nerves when that rotten ladder broke. Am I worth 10 percent, 5 percent, or even 1 percent of that?

It’s almost a decade later now. We are still trying to build a better life for ourselves. I am trying to give back to the community by donating my time as my son’s Scout Master for Boy Scouts. My wife has finished nursing school, and we are looking at $150,000.00 in school loans that we are going to have to somehow pay back. We have two teenagers who are also going to want to go to college, and Quad gets $60 million?

Is it apples and oranges? Maybe. Is it sour grapes? Again, maybe. But to me it still all comes back to a difference between what is legal and what is moral, ethical, and right; especially coming from a company that was founded on taking care of its employees.