Injured Workers Lead the Fight to Transform Workers’ Comp in Mississippi

The “Rights Team” is organizing injured workers to improve the MS workers’ compensation system.

Deep in the Mississippi Delta, a team of workers called the Rights Team are organizing injured workers to fight for improvements to Mississippi’s beleaguered workers’ compensation program. A project of the 21-year-old Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, based in Greenville, the Rights Team spent the summer educating workers about their rights at work and mobilizing for an Injured Workers Summit, which took place on Saturday, October 28.

The Summit, co-hosted by the Mississippi Workers’ Center and NELP, brought together dozens of mostly African American workers to learn about health and safety laws and how to navigate Mississippi’s extremely complicated and under-resourced workers’ comp program. The Summit also served as a campaign launch for legislative session 2018, when a coalition of worker advocates will introduce a bill to reform workers’ comp in Mississippi.

NELP began a partnership with the Workers’ Center a year ago. Our role is to amplify their work informing workers about their rights and to provide research and communications support to help make the case for a better workers’ comp program in Mississippi.

This partnership is personal for me. I was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi and grew up in a small rural community. When I was 10 years old, my brother was crushed by a tractor trailer while working in a warehouse in Jackson. I remember the summer our family spent driving to and from Jackson so that he could go to the workers’ comp office and defend his case.

My brother won his case and received compensation for his injury. But he is an exception to the rule. Most workers in Mississippi—especially African American workers, who tend to work in more hazardous jobs—are less likely to report their injuries for fear of retaliation. Mississippi is one of the few states that does not provide protections against retaliation for workers who are injured on the job.

In attendance at the Summit was Catherine Bacon, a union steward and daughter of a civil rights worker, who was fired from her job at a catfish processing company because her employer said she was not fit for work after having carpal tunnel surgery on both hands.

“After 15 years of hand-filleting, four years as a scale operator and trimmer, my hands gave out. I underwent carpal tunnel relief surgery. I returned back to work on light duty. Two months later, I was fired,” Bacon explained.

“The reason they gave me was I could no longer do the job anymore, but I was doing my job. They still fired me. With the help of my union, I returned back to work. There are many other workers who are faced with similar challenges every day.”

Bacon added, “The company makes us feel like it’s our fault. They make us feel like we’re doing something wrong when we report an injury.”

Employers have a duty to report injuries and provide safety equipment and training. In some cases, they do. African American workers, however, are the least likely to be provided these things among all Mississippi workers. They are also more likely to be working in dangerous or hazardous positions than other Mississippi workers. That’s why NELP is partnering with the Workers’ Center—to bring resources to a state with a terrible worker safety record and an even more terrible human rights record.

Many people think Mississippi is last in everything. In a lot of ways, they are right. I think Mississippi is first, however, when it comes to people being willing to shake up the power structures and fight for their rights.

Bacon summed up why NELP is honored to be in partnership with the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights when she said, “I’m ready to help workers. I come from a long line of organizing. My father worked with the Freedom Riders. He taught me to think about others. I go to bed thinking about who can I help tomorrow.”

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