VOICES: Unjustly Unpaid
By JULIENE McCOVEY, Hoopa Valley Tribal Member
While fighting the Meagram Fire in 1999, I was badly injured on Denny Road when the fire truck I was a passenger in, a foaming unit, drove off the bank. The driver, a fellow firefighter, fell asleep at the wheel after working too many days past his allowable shift. Firefighters are allowed to work 21 days before they are required to take two days of “R & R”. He worked 22 days straight on a different fire and then came directly to the Meagram without the required R & R.
I recall rolling down a steep embankment, watching glass shatter. I bent in half over my seatbelt which is what I believe caused my lower back injury.
I suffered broken ribs, lower back injury and a broken neck. I’m permanently disabled and continue to suffer from chronic pain. I can no longer walk normally and I’m not able to work as a result of this accident. While going through the lengthy process of applying for permanent disability, I learned that the Hoopa Tribe had received three large workman’s compensation payments on my behalf.
I received about $700 in temporary disability insurance payments in 1999, but according the social security records I have received more than $400,000 in insurance compensation for the accident. I have not received this money and the insurance company, Tristar, says they paid it to the Hoopa Valley Tribe. When I ask the Tribe about the money they seemed puzzled.
The current Hoopa Valley Tribal Council was unaware of the situation and said they would investigate the issue. They appear to be genuinely concerned and helpful, but I continue to be frustrated with the amount of time it has taken to resolve the problem.
Because of the payments that I had supposedly received as compensation, I’ve had trouble getting public assistance and social security disability. I’ve even had trouble getting Unemployment benefits and have been denied federal tax returns because they said my income was not accurately represented.
I have a workers’ injury benefits form with a notice at the top that reads:
NOTICE: Indian Reservations are sovereign nations and are not subject to State of Federal Workers’ Compensation laws. By completion of this form you are submitting to the sole jurisdiction of the Tribe.
The form was signed on my behalf by the Tribe’s Insurance Department. How can somebody sign away jurisdiction on my behalf? How can more than $400,000 of money intended to compensate me for my debilitating injury be lost in the tribal coffers?
My life would have been completely different over the past 15 years. I’m not angry, but I’m confused and I feel completely cheated. I have tremendous respect for the current Tribal Council, but I can’t help but push this issue until it’s resolved and I’ve been justly compensated.