The accident changed Lee’s life. He lost a leg and began receiving workers’ compensation — then, unable to return to work, kept receiving it for decades. He uses a wheelchair and has a home health aide. He can’t type, he said, because his “hands are like claws.”
The city government says it is time for Lee, 65, to find another source of income. According to the Office of Risk Management, which runs D.C.’s public workers’-compensation program, 79 injured workers were told their benefits will end in April when they hit a 500-week cap.
Lee and others who rely on the program say they can’t work and have no other income. At a public hearing Friday, the D.C. Council will weigh legislation that could provide permanent disability payments to city employees and lift a time limit on payouts that are a lifeline for workers injured years ago.
In July, D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) introduced legislation to ensure injured city workers can access permanent disability benefits, ending distinctions in workers’ compensation between public-sector workers and private-sector workers, who do not face the same restrictions.
Todd said the proposed changes would align D.C.’s workers’-compensation law with that of Maryland and Virginia. He said protections for injured public workers is a matter of “equity” when city employees such as tree trimmers and snowplow operators have a smaller safety net than those in the private sector.
After the D.C. Council hears testimony Friday, Todd hopes to shape legislation before his term ends in January, although it is unclear when the measure could be up for a vote.
“It’s really around the public workers in the District of Columbia that are largely African American,” Todd said. “It is an issue that deserves the light now being cast on it. It is literally people’s lives hanging in the balance.”
Lee stopped receiving workers’ compensation of $310 per week on Aug. 26 — months before the 500-week limit. In a letter, the Office of Risk Management said he already was “capable of performing work from a sedentary position” and had reached “maximum medical improvement.”
“At this point, I'm kind of lost,” Lee said. “I’ve got all these diagnoses. My body is just constantly deteriorating.”
Lee’s attorney, William J. Lightfoot, said the city agency is not respecting injured workers and is out only to save money, pushing injured workers into poverty and homelessness.
In a statement, the Office of Risk Management said 79 workers were notified that they were reaching the 500-week cap. The agency noted that those whom it considers permanently injured are still eligible to receive benefits.
But for those whose conditions are not considered permanent, “temporary benefits should terminate,” the statement said.
“Some beneficiaries who were notified of the approaching cap have been receiving temporary benefits long after their workplace injuries resolved,” according to the statement. “Due to the passage of time, some have developed conditions unrelated to their workplace injuries that may impact their ability to work. There are several social safety net programs to assist such individuals.”
The proposed changes to the public workers’-compensation program were first reported by the Washington City Paper.
The 500-week cap was approved by the D.C. Council in 2010 in what worker advocates say was an effort to save taxpayer money. Hal Levi, an attorney who has represented D.C. clients in workers’-compensation cases for more than 20 years, said the time limit and other restrictions make life difficult for former city employees left unable to work.
In the past decade, city regulations have ended workers’ compensation for emotional injuries and forced those who receive benefits to get new evaluations from doctors. Worker advocates say the evaluations are designed to make it harder for injured people to get assistance.
“It's going to be a time bomb,” Levi said of the looming April cutoff. “Many of my clients have no idea what’s coming.”
Peggy Williams once taught life-skills classes for the University of the District of Columbia, traveling the city to lecture on financial management and parenting. She suffered three knee injuries in slip-and-falls on the job — in 1986, 1993 and 1997.
After the last injury, she worked for a few months but found it impossible amid the pain.
“Oh, my Lord,” Williams said. “Like someone is driving hot nails into your skin and swelling, lots of swelling. . . . As time went on it’s gotten progressively worse.”
Williams was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a pain disorder with no clear cause that can persist for years. She has fought the pain with medication, meditation and breathing techniques, but doctors the Office of Risk Management sent her to have said she can’t work.
In May, Williams received a letter from the agency saying she was approaching the 500-week cap on city benefits, worth about $2,400 each month. The agency later rescinded the letter because Williams was hired before 1980, which makes her eligible for an exemption to the time limit.
But Williams, 70, said the letter made her uncertain about her status in the program.
She started at UDC in 1973, when it was the Washington Technical Institute. She often had vacation time left at the end of the year because she did not take time off.
She has talked with people about possible jobs that are less physical, but she said she can experience “pain spasms” even while talking on the phone.
Thomas A. Robinson, co-author of a legal treatise on workers’ compensation, described such benefits as a bargain between workers and employers. By accepting benefits, workers agree not to sue. By paying out, employers avoid litigation.
“The original bargain between employer and employee has eroded so much that what the worker now has is zero based on what he or she gave up,” Robinson said, characterizing the views of some advocates for injured workers.
In 2015, a Labor Department report noted “a shift toward controlling costs by cutting benefits,” including restrictions to access and the end of adjustments for inflation.
“We need to identify best practices in order to provide better benefits to injured workers, increase the likelihood that workers with occupational injuries or illnesses can access the wage replacement benefits they need until they can go back to work, and reduce costs to employers,” the report said.
Lee, sitting in his wheelchair outside his apartment near the Anacostia Metro station, is approaching two months without benefits after years of income through the program. He said he can’t work and is out of options.
As his health aide put a windbreaker on his shoulders to shield him from a light rain, Lee said a loss of income could mean the lost of his home.
“They’re trying to throw me out like the trash I used to pick up in these streets,” he said.