Injured and fired, but little help from state

Barbara Lynch's problems began within two months of starting her job at a chicken cooking plant in Concord. Handling boxes 12 to 15 hours a day, three days a week at the Perdue Farms plant near the Carolina Mall, Lynch in September 2003 started complaining about debilitating pain in her back and left shoulder.

Doctors diagnosed her with shoulder and back problems. Over the next year, medical records show, her ailments continued as supervisors assigned her to a job that required frequent bending.

In 2004, Lynch discovered from a doctor's office that Perdue had never filed a workers' comp claim on her behalf, so she did it herself. The company denied her claim, and Lynch requested a hearing before the N.C. Industrial Commission to appeal the decision.

About the same time, she wrote an eight-page letter to Perdue's corporate human resources department, explaining her medical problems and complaining that plant officials had not treated her properly after she was hurt.

Three months later, in December 2004, Lynch told a supervisor that she would need surgery for the shoulder problems brought on by her work. She was fired the following day, she said.

Perdue says it fired Lynch because of excessive absenteeism. “Her dismissal was unrelated to her workers' comp claim and was for cause,” said company spokeswoman Julie DeYoung.

Lynch, 61, acknowledged that she missed work more than 15 times from September 2003 until the end of 2004, often because of her injuries. But she said some of the company's write-ups for absenteeism were errors and shouldn't have counted against her.

DeYoung said Perdue officials can't discuss many of the specifics of Lynch's case. But she said the company, without admitting fault, agreed to pay cash to settle her workers' comp litigation.

The state dismissed Lynch's REDA complaint two days after receiving her completed questionnaire, records show. Officials said they couldn't prove retaliation because too much time had elapsed between her original 2003 injury and her firing in 2004.

State officials had not talked to Lynch – or awaited even Perdue's written response to the allegations – before making the decision to dismiss the case, the records indicate.

There's no sign in state records that investigators looked closely at the fact that Lynch was fired the day after notifying a supervisor she needed surgery. Nor is there any indication that investigators considered evidence that, in late 2004, Lynch was making it increasingly clear to the company that she planned to fight for workers' compensation.

Had investigators visited Lynch, they would have discovered that she kept detailed notes chronicling how plant officials responded to her complaints and injuries.

They also would have seen that Lynch repeatedly got medical treatments in 2003 and 2004 that had the potential to increase Perdue's workers' compensation costs – as would her needed surgery.

Today, Lynch washes laundry for a Concord hotel, a job she says is far easier on her body. But she says she'll always remember the morning she left the plant for the last time.

“I just cried all the way home,” she said.

With no job, she was forced to move in with her daughter. She soon began relying on food stamps.

“Nobody is there to protect the worker,” she said.