Bus driver Glenn Bowen hurt his shoulder on the job, and his workers' compensation claim against the Hertz Corporation has dragged on unresolved for more than a year. Now that claim may be tied up in another case against the company, one brought by several of his black co-workers.
Bowen's trouble started on February 2, 1996. He was inspecting his bus prior to starting a 5 to 11 p.m. shift shuttling customers from the DIA terminal to the Hertz lot when he slipped on the ice and landed painfully on his right shoulder, suffering a tear in his rotator cuff. He notified Hertz and was sent to a company doctor for tests.
For the next year, he continued working and went to a physical therapist three times a week. Then it became two times a week, but nothing worked. Cortisone injections helped for a while, but the pain would return.
In April 1997, Bowen opted for rotator-cuff surgery. "I didn't want 'em to cut me, but I wanted to get better," he says.
He'd had the same surgery on his left shoulder twelve years earlier and made a full recovery, but this time he was not so lucky--his shoulder never fully recovered. Still, three weeks after the operation, he was ordered back to work. "I thought I'd be back when I recovered," Bowen says. Instead, he was out directing traffic on the Hertz lot, drowsy from painkillers, his arm in a sling.
Within weeks of his return, Bowen found himself back in the bus, driving with one hand and trying to operate the bus intercom with the other. The company's lack of concern for his injury, he says, led him to quit in August 1997 and file a claim for his still-ailing shoulder.
Since then he has been to no fewer than four doctors--two of his own choosing and two selected by Hertz.
A medical evaluation completed by one of Bowen's doctors in early February of this year found that Bowen's shoulder was weak and that he could not do work that required him to lift his hands above his head. He also had difficulty reaching into his back pocket. This doctor recommended that Bowen not lift anything heavier than ten pounds with his right arm and shoulder. The doctors concluded that he was "20 percent" physically impaired in his "upper right extremity."
And in a psychiatric report submitted by one of Bowen's other doctors, Bowen admitted to depression, decreased energy, decreased self-esteem and weight gain. He is less able to bowl and fish, some of his favorite hobbies. The psychiatrist gave Bowen a "mental impairment" rating of 10 percent.
Part of his shoddy treatment at the hands of Hertz, Bowen says, involved racial discrimination. While he was assigned to direct traffic with his arm in a sling, according to Bowen and others, a white employee with an injured leg had been given "light work" answering phones in the lost-and-found office.
"They could have made provisions for Glenn, but they did not," says co-worker Johnnie Peoples. "This white guy told Hertz when he was ready to come back."
Bowen was also given a drug test, even though, he says, the white worker with the injured leg was not subjected to a test.
Now Bowen is involved in a second lawsuit against the car-rental giant. Last March he joined nine other black Hertz employees in a potential class-action discrimination suit. The ten plaintiffs allege that they were treated more harshly than their white co-workers and that when they complained to their bosses, they were denied promotions, unjustly suspended and unjustly terminated.
Several of the employees tell stories similar to Bowen's.
Larry Hughes began working at Hertz in June 1994. He says that when the company was considering a new type of bus with better suspensions, only white drivers were asked to test it, even though most of the drivers on staff were black. Furthermore, he says, when the buses were purchased, black drivers weren't allowed to drive them. "Of course you'd want to drive them," he says. "They save your back."
In addition to joining the proposed class-action suit, Hughes says he filed an arbitration case against the company, claiming he was paid half as much as white employees to perform the same job. The matter went to arbitration; Hertz lost, and Hughes was rewarded back pay.
"My situation was always hostile," Hughes says. "I was told by different managers, when I had grievances going, to watch my back. Managers were going around with an atmosphere of cracking the whip."
Last August, he says, he was fired after an unfriendly encounter with a customer. He says a white customer got in his face for not helping his family with their bags. Hughes says the guy started bumping him in the chest and screaming obscenities, which he returned.
He was sent home and fired the next day.
Peoples, who started at Hertz in March 1995, says black workers had to ask permission to take water breaks or go to the bathroom, while white employees did not. "We had to constantly look over our shoulders."
Peoples was fired a day after Christmas last year after a verbal spat with a white colleague, who was not fired. After Peoples appealed the dismissal, she was offered her job back but declined.
When Kemal Woods was hired during the summer of 1996, he says he heard complaints from co-workers about racism. He says he was skeptical at first. "We could just be talking about disgruntled people," Woods says. "But when it happened to me, I knew it was more than mumblings and grumblings."
He says he was fired after the suit was filed, then rehired two months later after a union-appointed arbitrator determined there was no basis for his dismissal. He returned to work in June 1998.
"Anybody who was still working there was under a microscope," Woods says. "They were doing this to put fear in those other people who were thinking about coming forward with their tales of discrimination."
Woods says he decided to go back to work for Hertz because he wanted the company to know it "didn't win, and this lawsuit is going to the limit."
A Hertz spokeswoman says the company has no comment regarding the discrimination charges.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Anne Sulton, must file a motion in December to convince a judge that the case should be certified by the court as an official class-action suit. Sulton says she is looking for more potential plaintiffs who've had similar problems. (According to Hughes and Peoples, there are around 125 black employees at Hertz's DIA site, about half of the company's total workforce there.)
"There's no set magical number," Sulton says, "but it's fair to say you have to bring in a lot more than ten. I'm hopeful that we will."
But while Sulton is trying to add plaintiffs to her case, Hertz is trying to subtract them. On September 30 Hertz made Bowen an offer: If he would drop out of the class-action suit, the company would settle his workers' comp claim and pay him $16,270 in restitution.
"They're chickenshit," he says. "One thing has nothing to do with the others. They're holding up my shoulder for the class action."
Sulton, who received a copy of the settlement offer from Bryan Moore, Bowen's workers' comp attorney, agrees. She says she's angry that the "Hertz Corporation would try to force Glenn to give up his civil-rights case to be adequately compensated. I've never had that happen in my experience. It's underhanded."
Margaret Keck, Hertz's attorney in the compensation case, agrees that the two cases are independent, but she says it's not uncommon for lawyers to try to resolve all suits with opposing litigants at the same time. "You try to settle all claims," Keck says. "There's nothing underhanded about that. It's just the way we do business."
In its settlement offer, Hertz agreed to pay the $16,000 Bowen and Moore had already put on the table. But faced with the choice of dropping out of the other suit, Bowen said no. He now finds himself stuck between a class-action suit that may be dismissed for lack of plaintiffs and a protracted compensation case that is not set for trial until next January.
He now works part-time in a warehouse, where he doesn't lift any heavy objects and the working environment is much better. He still goes bowling and fishing, but he says he can't do them as well. He takes a few pain pills before he goes bowling.
"I feel okay," he says. "I'm not mentally down now. As I told the last headshrink I went to, I have to accept the pain and keep on moving. I just take a pill and keep on moving.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.