Too fat for workers' comp: Greg Staffa's sad but all-too-common story

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Greg Staffa was injured working a shift for Northwest Airlines. But not according to the doctor who said he was just too big. Submitted photo

Greg Staffa was sitting down to celebrate over a plate of Famous Dave’s.

It was May 2007. Northwest Airlines had emerged from bankruptcy that morning, so the corporation sprung for a barbecue lunch, a rare treat for rank-and-file types like Staffa, a baggage handler with seven years of experience.

Staffa got called away. He carried his “It’s a new day at NWA” gift mug. It was still in his hand when he walked out of the building a few minutes later, dumbstruck, suddenly out of a job.

Months earlier, during a shift, Staffa had felt a sharp tweak along his side. It hurt to bend over, lift, or twist.

A doctor told him to ice it and try going back to work. Staffa’s seasonal duties were just shifting, and he spent the next few months deicing planes.

In the spring, Staffa went back to throwing bags, and his pain came rushing back. He took his symptoms to Dr. Roy Hope, a St. Paul surgeon, who diagnosed “chronic muscle strain.” Staffa should “avoid heavy lifting indefinitely.”

Northwest wasn’t sure. The company sent Staffa to Dr. Bradley Helms, a specialist in “physical medicine and rehabilitation.”

Helms later reported his charge was a “pleasant, well dressed and groomed gentleman.” And fat. “Moderately obese,” Helms documented in one passage — so much so that “his body habitus” made it “virtually impossible” to detect his muscular injuries.

Staffa calls Helms’ work-up “the fat report.” Northwest’s claims adjuster, Liberty Mutual, used the diagnosis to blame Staffa’s “underlying and personal condition” for any lingering issues. His workers’ comp claim was denied.

Staffa thought he’d be in line for a less strenuous job supervising and answering phones, a common occurrence under an “accommodations” program between his union and the airline. But Northwest laid him off.

His union rep told him it wasn’t a union issue since they “aren’t doctors.” Staffa would have to sue.

In August 2008, a judge ruled resoundingly in Staffa’s favor, saying there was no “logical/common sense” behind Helms’ too-fat-to-work finding.

It should’ve been a great victory. But two things had changed: A supportive ex-manager got him a job in Northwest’s corporate headquarters, and Northwest merged with Delta Airlines.

The first change meant Staffa had joined a new union, and now had one year of seniority instead of seven. The second meant no one gave a shit.

He was among the first to be laid off due to low seniority.

Staffa wanted the handlers’ union to file a grievance and get him the job the contract owed him. But the union was more concerned about saving its handlers’ jobs — Northwest’s were unionized, Delta’s weren’t — and one little case was trivial by comparison.

Staffa fell behind on his mortgage. A week before Christmas 2009, the bank foreclosed on his Farmington home. Staffa remained homeless and jobless for three years. He had a résumé full of blue-collar work and a doctor’s note not to do it.

In late 2012, Liberty Mutual finally contacted Staffa’s attorney to resolve his outstanding workers’ comp claim. He says the company told him they knew he was still out of work and homeless, and needed money. They offered what Staffa calls “pennies on the dollar.” He took it.

But money was never the endgame. Staffa wants a job. His last chance at it probably faded a few years back, when Delta convinced the handlers’ union to dissolve, exchanging job security for pay and profit-sharing.

Some four years later, Staffa’s living in St. Cloud, getting occasional work with staffing agencies, and spending much of his time crusading for his cause, trying to shout over the jet roar of Delta’s $40 billion in revenue.

His lone bright spots: a supportive letter from GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a guy not known for taking on big business, and Gov. Mark Dayton’s labor commissioner contacting Delta on his behalf.

The airline’s done dealing with Staffa, and anyone else. (Delta declined comment for this story.) He got severance pay, and they don’t owe him anything.

When Staffa tells his tale of woe, people don’t believe him. Too fat to work? In America? 

But Staffa’s case is far from exceptional, according to his attorney Christopher Middlebrook, who handled 5,000 workers’ comp claims before retiring in January. When an insurance company hires an IME, or “independent medical examiner,” you should read that phrase without the first syllable.

Doctors “are not going to continue to get that work if they are what’s considered ‘liberal’,” Middlebrook says. About “19 times out of 20,” IME docs deny work caused someone’s pain, says Middlebrook, who represented “plenty” of people deemed too fat to be hurt.

Since 2000, Bradley Helms, the physician who Northwest hired to see Staffa, has been mentioned in at least three other workers’ comp claims. Each time Helms said the employee was not injured at work.

Middlebrook spent decades on the other side of the table, but even he can’t find a suitable villain. All parties — from corporations to insurers, doctors to lawyers — are acting in their self-interest. They’re trying to keep their jobs. Too bad if that means Greg Staffa loses his.

Staffa’s affable and diligent. He has letters of recommendation from former managers, and had perfect attendance at Northwest corporate. He’s compiled a packet that pulls together the disparate threads of his long, sad story. It’s a compelling case.

He’d probably make a pretty good union rep, if anyone’s hiring. He knows what happens if someone in that gig gets selfish. And he knows the system’s stacked against the worker, in favor of their bosses’ bosses, and that no matter how big you are, you’re too little for them to notice.

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