Every now and then the facts of someone’s life or death resonate up and down California and penetrate our boardrooms, newsrooms, classrooms and the Capitol.
Whether that happens in the case of Charles Romano, a worker in his 40s who died five years ago this month after a cruel five-year ordeal in the workers’ compensation system, will reveal the meaning of accountability in our state. It also will show officials’ willingness to exert lapsed oversight, ensure fair play and extend basic humanity in a system most simply want to ignore.
The ruling in Romano’s case this month by the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) showed that neither decency nor the demands of law, in procedure or in penalties, is protecting injured workers or the public interest in a functional system. The appeals board found Romano’s employer, Kroger, under its California imprint Ralph’s, and insurance carrier Sedgwick culpable for “a callous indifference to the catastrophic consequences of its delays, inaction, and outright neglect.” Despite 11 separate violations of law for denying or delaying care to Romano – even refusing to provide him use of a wheelchair – and despite their months of delay in paying the hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospitalization costs surrounding his death, Ralph’s and Sedgwick face fines of just $110,000.
Such lethal irresponsibility toward a Californian trying to overcome a work-related injury is unconscionable but far from unusual. The meager maximum penalty of $10,000 for each violation, no matter how blatant and severe, clearly didn’t provide a disincentive for the delays and denials of care that proved fatal for Romano. Indeed, the ongoing practice of such illegal delays and denials in case after case reveals that “profit at any human cost” has become an unofficial motto for too many companies and their insurers.
In the Inland Empire alone, hundreds of men and women incur unforeseen bodily harm on the job each month. Stockers, like Romano, and warehouse workers, who are literally a backbone of our local economy, suffer scores of debilitating injuries. We cannot afford to turn our backs on them, their care or their future productivity.
If more lawmakers knew that changes in the 2004 bill pushed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, reducing penalties for delay and denial of care, could in any way enable such mistreatment, it would have met stiffer resistance, and amendments to stiffen penalties under law. Current lawmakers should waste no time in taking up that priority.
The Romano case highlights how denials and delays of treatment worsen injuries, wrongly shift cost burdens onto caregivers and inhibit rehabilitation and return to work. The ruling creates a teachable moment for all Californians – corporate executives and shareholders, reporters and editors, educators in health and government and law, as well as state officials – about the ethical obligations of employers and insurers, the need for effective regulation and the value of workers’ lives.
From orchards to railroads to renewable energy, our regional economy has grown from the ingenuity and sacrifice of workers. We all share an interest in protecting the health of the labor force.
John Longville, vice president of the San Bernardino Community College District Board of Trustees, represented county residents in the state Assembly from 1998 to 2004. Jesse Ceniceros, a former aerospace mechanic in Bloomington, is board chair of Voters Injured At Work, a statewide advocacy group for Californians hurt on the job.