Sunday, November 25, 2007

Signs of the Times in America

The wages of a Wal-Mart shelf-stocker average around $8-an-hour, which puts many Wal-Mart workers below the poverty line. Deborah Shank of Cape Girardeau, Mo., a Wal-Mart shelf-stocker on the midnight shift from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., escaped the indignity of the poverty line because her husband is also a maintenance worker at the local university. On their two meager salaries, they were raising three sons.

They were until a semi plowed into the driver's side of Deborah's minivan one Saturday morning, leaving her with major brain trauma (among many other injuries). She spent weeks in a local intensive care unit and months in the hospital, drifting in and out of a coma.

As a Wal-Mart worker on the night shift and after months of probation, she had qualified for Wal-Mart health insurance only about three months before the truck hit her van. Recall that Wal-Mart has been increasingly forced by public pressure into extending health-care benefits to some of its employees, since many of them have been forced onto state and federal welfare for lack of insurance.

Overall, Wal-Mart paid out some $470,000 over several years for Deborah Shank's medical care. She's now in a nursing home, requiring round-the-clock attention. She cannot eat without help. She can barely talk. Her life is shattered. But the pain is only just beginning for the family. Wal-Mart has seen to that.

The largest company in the world found out that its lowly former shelf-stocker Deborah Shank of Cape Girardeau, Mo., and her husband had successfully sued the trucking company that owned the truck that flattened Deborah's minivan. For his losses, Mr. Shank collected $200,000. Deborah got $700,000. Well, not actually. The lawyers took a good chunk. Mr. Shank actually wound up with $119,000, and Deborah, $417,477.

Mr. Shank used his money to buy the family a one-story home fitted with wheelchair ramps and wider doors. Deborah's award was placed in a court-created special trust designed specifically for Deborah's future care. Which means the Shank family did not get that money but that it could be drawn on for Deborah's direct medical expenses.

According to a little-noticed clause in the Wal-Mart health insurance agreement that employees are required to sign, the company can demand reimbursement of insurance expenses if the employee wins any lawsuits for damages. And that's exactly what the richest corporation on the face of the earth did to the Shanks ... demanded they reimburse Wal-Mart for $470,000. In fact, Wal-Mart sued the Shanks for the money. If you find that a perfectly reasonable thing for the company to do, then you worship a slightly different version of the American dream than I do. And you're unusually qualified to be a federal judge in George Bush's America.

Ah, Land of the Free in the age of the corporations! Several federal judges sided with the company against the Shanks, ruling in effect that the Shanks were unfairly burdening the hugest merchandiser in the history of the universe with its nuisance brain trauma and nursing home whining. Mr. Shank has had to get rid of the extra-care nurse he had hired for his wife, since he has to work all the hours he can as a janitor to hold the shattered family together.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration took the Shank's middle son and exposed him to death in Iraq, from which he promptly died. Deborah Shank still does not know exactly what became of her baby boy. And Mr. Shank, in a last-ditch desperate attempt to help his wife with medical expenses, put her in a nursing home and then divorced her, not because he didn't love her but because he loved her enough to get around government rules about who qualifies for medical-care crumbs. The federal government is kinder to a single woman on life support than to a married woman on life support whose poor husband is a minimum-wage broom jockey.

These details, and many others, are found in the Wall Street Journal report on this now infamous case (and thanks to Craig for bringing it to our attention).

It's beyond me why you're still shopping at Wal-Mart. There are far greater costs than you recognize for cheap cat food and high-calorie snacks.

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