Gender bias in California labor law must end

As of January 1, certain California first responders added PTSD to their existing list of conditions automatically presumed eligible for workers compensation. Nurses, who care for the same patient population and face significant workplace risks, have no such protections at all. We’re calling for change.

In 2008, Catherine Montgomery, a registered nurse in the psych unit at UC Irvine Medical Center, was thrown to the ground by a patient, herniating four discs in her spine. Over time, Montgomery needed back surgery. The claim for surgery to relieve her back pain was not only denied, but in the process, the hospital has hired an outside law firm to fight her claim, Montgomery has been followed by a private investigator, and her private medical records — including her OB/GYN record — were subpoenaed.

“It makes me feel discriminated against. It makes me feel like nurses don’t count,” said Montgomery, who estimates she has spent around $50,000 of her own money on pain medication and various treatments for her back. Although back pain is more common in nurses than any other profession, Montgomery may not have had to spend so much time arguing her claim — if she were only a police officer.

That’s because California law grants many public safety workers — male-dominated professions such as police officers and firefighters — “presumptive eligibility” for workers’ compensation. In other words, if the employee sustains certain injuries, like lower back pain, or contracts certain diseases, like Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the injury or illness is presumed to be job related, and the worker is automatically eligible for workers’ comp benefits.

Nurses, on the other hand, still have no presumptive eligibility at all, even though our nearly 90 percent female profession experiences many, many known hazards at work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, workplace hazards for registered nurses resulted in 19,790 nonfatal injuries and illnesses that required at least one day away from work. For the same year, all protective service occupations, including firefighters and police officers combined, amounted to 10,000 total.

Why the unfair treatment? Sexism. Of course, our heroic first responders and law enforcement workers deserve all the protections they have. Nurses are simply asking for parity.

If we are caring for the same patients, exposed to the same illnesses, and experiencing on-the-job injuries at even higher rates — why is our women-dominated profession not protected in the same way? Why is California, with its progressive reputation, continuing to leave nurses with no presumptive eligibility protections at all?

On Jan. 1, California firefighters and first responders even got PTSD added to their list of covered conditions, via SB 542, a bill signed into law in 2019. Yet, a recent New York Times article outlined the high rate of PTSD in nurses, with as many as one in four experiencing it.

“It is unconscionable that because nursing is a majority women’s occupation that nurses are not protected as are firefighters and police officers,” said Kathryn Donahue, a now-retired intensive care unit registered nurse in Northern California. In 2010, when Donahue was still at the bedside, she contracted the antibiotic-resistant infection MRSA at work.

ICU nurses like Donahue, whose gloves and gowns are often contaminated with MRSA, face risks similar to firefighters, whose workplaces and equipment have tested positive for MRSA. Donahue, however, had to fight with the insurance company to get her infection covered. They claimed she got MRSA from her dog.

“There is no justification for the California legislators’ sexist choice to deny presumptive eligibility to nurses,” said Donahue, “Like firefighters and police officers, nurses have a dangerous job. Hospitals are MRSA hotbeds. Nurses are hit, stabbed, and killed on the job.”

The disparity in protections for nurses is outrageous — but it’s also not for lack of trying to reform the rules. California Nurses Association has spent years demanding gender equity in presumptive eligibility, introducing legislation that is continually squashed, while male-dominated unions easily gain additional improvements. In 2019, a bill we put forward was, once again, shelved by California legislators.

“I trusted the system.” said Montgomery. “I went to work one day and got beat up, and my life was never the same. I can never get all those years back. When you have a back injury, it changes your life forever.”

Montgomery says in this era where gender disparity is taking center stage like never before, legislators need to step up.

“Do the right thing for women who give so much of their lives to helping other people,” she said. “Make a difference in this world, make a difference for women. It’s time.”

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