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COVID-19

Atrium Health to Workers: Drop Dead

Businesses showered symbolic gratitude on front-line workers during the worst days of the pandemic while simultaneously campaigning to deny wage and medical benefits to those who got sick or died while working.

That’s the take-away from a recent article in the Charlotte Observer describing the difficulty employees face getting workers’ compensation benefits if they contract COVID-19 on the job.

Consider the example of Atrium Health, the Charlotte-based hospital authority that employs 70,000 workers and operates dozens of hospitals and 1,350 medical offices across North Carolina and Georgia.

Since early 2020, when the pandemic took hold, Atrium has eagerly and publicly expressed gratitude for its employees.

There was perhaps no flashier example than the company’s partnership with the Carolina Panthers to send four employees to this year’s Super Bowl.

“After nearly a year of fighting on the front lines of a global pandemic, four healthcare workers with Atrium Health will be recognized for their efforts with a trip to Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla., as part of an NFL-led initiative in appreciation for their unwavering commitment to their community,” Atrium announced in February 2021.

“We have an incredibly dedicated and selfless workforce here at Atrium Health,” said Dr. Gary Little, the company’s chief medical officer. “They’ve sacrificed long hours and endured physical and mental obstacles working directly with patients affected by COVID-19, and we want to show them just how grateful we are to have them on our team.”

Atrium showcased the four Super Bowl-bound employees on its Twitter feed during the trip, milking the diversion for all the good publicity it could.

Other programs of recognition popped up during the pandemic.

Atrium partnered with the Panthers to feature “frontline heroes” at home football games at Bank of America stadium.

The company facilitated meal donations to its workers, publicizing the gifts on its Facebook page.

Fox 46 paired up with Atrium to recognize and honor “Faces from the Frontline.”

And the company, along with other healthcare providers, benefitted from a statewide, two-and-a-half-hour fly-over by a single C-17 from the North Carolina Air National Guard: “Operation: American Resolve” honored healthcare heroes by flying a 282,000-pound aircraft from Asheville to Wilmington in May 2020, with each locale glimpsing the plane for a handful of seconds.

These acts of recognition were largely defined by the degree to which Atrium relied on others to pay for their pro-employee efforts, thereby epitomizing big business’s habit of privatizing benefits — earning good PR and boosting employee morale — while externalizing and socializing costs.

Throughout the pandemic, Atrium Health touted its employee appreciation through acts of peformative gratitude such as partnering with the Carolina Panthers to invite “frontline heroes” to attend home games at Bank of America Stadium.

It’s not surprising, then, that when an expression of employee appreciation might have hit Atrium’s bottomline, the company chose greed over gratitude.

To understand how, we need to review some details of North Carolina’s workers’ compensation law.

Among the sorts of injuries covered by workers’ compensation are so-called occupational diseases. Think a typist who develops carpel tunnel syndrome or a miner who gets black lung disease.

If a worker alleges he contracted an occupational disease, he must prove two things: 1) His work put him at a greater risk of contracting the disease than that faced by a member of the general public and 2) his work did, in fact, cause the disease. If he proves both of these, he is eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, which include partial wage payments so long as he cannot work because of his illness and medical treatment necessitated by his illness. If a worker dies from an occupational disease, the law pays his dependents a total of 500 weeks of partial wage benefits and up to $10,000 for funeral costs. (Full disclosure: My law practice is exclusively dedicated to representing workers hurt on the job.)

Perhaps you’ve spotted the challenge workers face under this legal regime during a global pandemic: How can a front-line worker who contracted COVID-19 on the job prove he got it there and not, say, at the grocery store? It’s doable, but potentially difficult.

Enter House Bill 1057, a bipartisan measure primarily sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly in May 2020, around the same time that C-17 aircraft buzzed overhead.

The bill would have created a rebuttable presumption that front-line workers who contracted COVID-19 did so at work. If an employer sought to contest eligibility for benefits, it could seek to prove the worker got the disease elsewhere. If it failed to do so, the employee would be awarded benefits.

To be sure, this would create for employers the same kind of challenge currently faced by workers: With the virus everywhere, how could businesses prove their workers didn’t get it on the job? It would be difficult.

House Bill 1057 thus raised a question: Who, during a once-in-a-century public health emergency, is better equipped to bear the risk of being unable to make its case, injured workers or the businesses that employ them (or, more precisely in many cases, the large, for-profit insurance companies providing workers’ compensation coverage to those businesses)?

If employers’ gratitude for frontline workers were more than performative, then excusing employees from proving this difficult case would be the way to go. Genuine gratitude counsels liberality, and presumptively providing employees (or, in the event of death, their families) with workers’ compensation benefits would be a substantively meaningful way to express appreciation, a thanksgiving beyond the cheap and merely symbolic.

But it didn’t happen, and Atrium helped make it so.

Of course, the company itself couldn’t come out and oppose the bill. Doing so would defeat all the savvy public relations efforts it deployed during the pandemic. Instead, Atrium employed special interest groups to do its dirty work, engaging in the lobbying and PR equivalent of money laundering to conceal the company’s hostility to North Carolina’s workers.

After its sponsors filed House Bill 1057, a coalition of twenty-four industry groups quickly pounced on the legislation, arguing the pro-worker reform would cost too much money. The groups included representatives from a wide range of industries, including local government, car dealers, alcohol, restaurants, builders, poultry farmers, trucking, insurance, and healthcare.

A self-interested analysis from business groups regarding a similar proposal in Illinois, the North Carolina anti-reform coalition pointed out, pegged the potential total cost between $66 million and $4.453 billion, with the high-end estimate assuming a 50% infection rate among workers, an absurdity no doubt included solely to induce sticker shock in the minds of legislators. (As a point of reference, in 2020, Atrium paid its top ten executives total compensation of $26.7 million, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. At the top of the list was CEO Gene Woods, who got $7.9 million in compensation.)

Atrium CEO Gene Woods earned $7.9 million in compensation in 2020, the same year the company helped kill workers’ compensation reform that would have benefitted healthcare heroes struck down by COVID-19.

“The proposal being advanced is a fundamental threat to the continued viability of the workers compensation system in our state,” the North Carolina special interest groups asserted in a letter sent to legislators as part of their campaign to kill the bill.

Among the letter’s signatories were the North Carolina Association of Self-Insurers (“NCASI”), which represents large employers who pay their own workers’ compensation claims instead of relying on insurance, and the North Carolina Healthcare Association (“NCHA”), which represents hospitals.

Atrium’s Melinda Daniel, who works as the company’s assistant vice president overseeing human resources and workers’ compensation, sits on the NCASI board of directors.

Ken D. Haynes, who serves as Atrium’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, belongs to the NCHA board of directors. (Haynes made more than $2.2 million last year.) Dr. Kevin High, president of Wake Forest Baptist Health, which is part of the Atrium system, also sits on the organization’s board of directors.

The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which counts Atrium as a “cornerstone member,” signed the letter, too.

Atrium sought to keep it difficult for its employees to get workers’ compensation benefits if they got sick or died from COVID-19, but because the company did so through a number of multi-member industry organizations acting as intermediaries, it could conceal its anti-worker efforts behind a facade of shallow, feel-good concern.

Atrium’s efforts succeeded: Legislators referred the bill to committee, where it died — confirming the company’s gratitude for its healthcare heroes is a mile wide and an inch deep.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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