Claude Ramsay, 1916-1986By Bill Minor
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 17-18
In death, Claude Ramsay belatedly was paid homage the other day by a lot of big politicians and some of his long-time foes around the Legislature as the best friend working people in Mississippi ever had.
It was extraordinary, of course, for a labor leader in this state to be accorded such recognition because organized labor has never been regarded as a political force here comparable to most other states. Nor was Ramsay a beloved figure in many political circles.
No doubt, the Ramsay family and those who toiled with Ramsay in the vineyard to keep the labor union movement alive in Mississippi were pleased that Claude was appreciated.
But it occurred to me that if people in government and those who influence government want to pay a more lasting tribute to the memory of Claude Ramsay, it would be to correct one of the chief wrongs in our state that Claude spent the last years of his life trying to correct.
That is the unconscionable system of compensating injured workers in Mississippi, a system in which benefits allowed by state law border on cruel and inhumane punishment of those so unfortunate to be hurt on the job.
Mississippi was the last state in the nation to enact a Workers Compensation Law in 1948, to assure compensation for workers who suffer job-related injuries or illness without having to go to court or prove who was at fault.
For years Ramsay had been the point man in trying to get the Mississippi Legislature to upgrade benefits for injured workers to a level of decency comparable to most other states.
The sad facts are that Mississippi's benefits for job-related injuries have fallen behind all other states to the point that the economic worth of a Mississippi laboring man or woman seems to be only a fraction of other American workers.
A Mississippi worker who loses an arm on the job can expect to be compensated $25,200, while an Alabama worker with the same injury would receive $48,840; a South Carolina worker $63,144 and a worker in Iowa--a farm state which in many ways resembles Mississippi--would be paid $133,250.
The loss of an eye by a Mississippi worker carries only $12,600 in benefits, but $24,800 in Louisiana, $27,280 in Alabama, $21,862 in Arkansas and $92,400 in Pennsylvania.
At the heart of the inadequate Mississippi workers' benefits is the pitifully low maximum weekly benefits permitted an injured worker in this state. Now at $133 a week, it is considerably below every other state in the nation (Alabama $303, Louisiana $248).
Ramsay had waged a losing battle against the powerful business lobby which consistently in the past worked on the Legislature to hold down the maximum weekly benefits to only small annual increases.
While most states have adopted a system of maximum weekly benefits based on two-thirds of the state's average weekly wages, the Mississippi Legislature has held the line to a specific amount.
Translated into a yearly amount, the $133 weekly payment allowed an injured Mississippi worker adds up to $6,916, which is below the poverty level. That means, for instance, a truck driver making $600 to $700 a week who injures his back and is laid up for six months would have only $133 a week in compensation to take care of his family.
Although Mississippi Workers Compensation Law is now almost forty years old, the maximum 450 weeks of compensation, regardless of injury, has remained in the law.
Some business organizations have even touted Mississippi's low compensation as a selling point to attract industry to the state. In 1981 the state Supreme Court held under the existing state law, a worker in Mississippi had no job protection if he filed a worker's compensation claim. The court went so far as to suggest that the Legislature should adopt the Texas law which guarantees a worker cannot be fired for filing a compensation claim.
Ramsay had valiantly tried to get the Legislature to outlaw retaliatory firings of any workers who made compensation claims, but again he met a wall of business resistance led by the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.
Hoping to break the long-standing stalemate in the Legislature over upgrading the injured worker's benefits, Marshall Bennett, chairman of the Mississippi Worker's Compensation Commission, two months ago brought the opposing forces together with legislative chairmen who handle compensation leglislation in hopes of reaching a compromise on revising the law.
Ramsay, as labor's spokesman, and a representative of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, which sides with labor in the controversy, sat down with the manufacturers and other business representatives, the legislative leaders, and Bennett. They hammered out a compromise just a week before Ramsay died.
Although the compromise measure emerged intact from the House Insurance subcommittee, House members failed to pass the bill.
Claude wasn't around for the demise of this year's workers' benefits bill. But in lieu of eulogies and flowers, I'm sure he would rather see injured Mississippi workers get a better deal.
Longtime Mississippi political columnist Bill Minor lives in Jackson.