Monthly Archives: November 2012

Inustrial Fires and History Lessons

A fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh killed over 100 workers earlier this week. The story continues to make the news as information comes out about some of the circumstances of the fire. Workers claim that managers actually locked employees in the building because they thought it was a false alarm. These sorts of actions are lighting their own fire under groups like the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights who have been critical of the garment industry and have been lobbying for safety improvements. This fire and other recent incidents in China involving factories that make iPhones are stirring advocacy and labor groups to demand safety reforms. 
The managers and owners of the factory should have been paying more attention in history class.  The events of last week in Bangladesh bear a striking resemblance to labor related events in our history.  The outcomes here – and we certainly hope for similar outcomes there – resulted in changes in labor laws and the beginnings of Federal oversight of manufacturing organizations. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred just over a century ago in New York City causing the deaths of 146 garment workers.  The fire would forever change American labor laws and worker safety standards and accelerate the development of the labor movement in America, most directly in the development of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed over 500 women working in the top three floors of a ten-story building in the Manhattan Garment District.  They were paid to sew clothing items, just as Bangladeshi workers are today, except that the Triangle seamstresses were paid piecework while reports are Bangladeshi workers earn $.19 an hour. The Triangle Company managements was concerned about theft and unauthorized time away from the sewing machines; they locked the doors.   It was on March 25, 1911 that a small fire started in the cutting room on the eighth floor. The initial flames gathered fuel from loose cloth and spread to the upper floors.  As panic spread, people ran to the exits here they were met with locked doors.  A single fire escape at the rear of the building collapsed and cut off escape.  Trapped women  jumped from open windows and even in groups from the top of the building.  Bodies lay everywhere in the street. 

The Triangle factory owners were arrested and charged with manslaughter, but they were acquitted. They eventually settled with families of the victims for an amount reported about $75 per victim. We don’t know how high the arrests will go in Bangladesh, but several managers and supervisors have been arrested. It will take some time to see how they fare. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has already indicated it will pay about $1,300 in initial compensation to the families of the dead.  They will also give the relatives of victims their monthly salary, about $56 per month, for at least 10 years.

The most important outcome of the triangle shirtwaist factory fire where the social changes that followed. These not only involve developments in the labor movement in the United States, but led to changes in compensation for injured workers and ultimately for workers compensation insurance. It paved the way for a workers compensation law in New York State in 1914. At that, the New York State law actually lagged Washington State which had passed similar legislation in 1911.

We can only hope that history repeats itself in the Bangladesh case. There is a growing movement in the US to buy local and by US products. The Bangladesh fire reminds us that our international competitors don’t only compete on wages, reportedly $.19 an hour for these workers, but compete in an unregulated environment that can be extraordinarily detrimental to workers.

Animal Einsteins

A few days ago, one of the byproducts of an Internet search turned up a reference to Alex the Parrot. If you don’t know about Alex, he was a grey parrot who learned how to count, and some folks say even understood numerical concepts. That last part is something many of us humans never seem to master.

Alex was trained by Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University psychologist.  He learned to add sets of objects – crackers and jellybeans were evident favorites – and get the correct total.  He could only add up to 8 however which means he had slim chance of passing second grade.  He also learned to put numbers (colored refrigerator magnets) in correct order up to eight and he could relate the numerical symbols to the right number of objects.  Experiments that Pepperberg performed with Alex seemed to indicate that the bird was not cued by the trainer, but actually understood the relationships between the number of objects and the abstract concept of the number that represented the set. It may be unkind to note that parrots have four “toes” on each foot.  This limitation would certainly have posed a problem in learning multiplication, but it might have been beneficial in learning computer programming.

While all of this may sound vaguely amusing, it is part of our human efforts to understand the development of intelligence.  Alex took us a way down the road to understanding that creatures other than ourselves may be capable of representing things symbolically – like the notion that “8” can represent a cluster of eight individual marbles – or jellybeans.

Alex departed this earth a bit eerily as well.  It is reported that one day in September 2007 Alex said to Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.” He was found dead the next day of what was described as a “heart event.”  Some of the research papers describing his abilities have been published posthumously earlier this year.
Alex is only one animal in a long line of animal Einstein’s. Clever Hans was a famous counting horse, Washoe was a chimpanzee who learned American sign language and a cockatoo named Figaro apparently makes tools which is a talent largely reserved for human beings. Fortunately for us, the cockatoo makes relatively simple tools; we are not talking rocket science here.

It is tempting, as a human being, to discount all of this as trickery or training.  In some cases it has been.  Clever Hans was a nineteenth century counting horse who could provide correct answers to various mathematical problems by tapping out the answer with its hoof.  The horse, owned by Wilhelm von Osten became famous enough to attract scientific interest and various tests were devised to learn whether Hans could count or if there were trickery involved.  The outcome of the tests was complicated.  It appears there was no deliberate trickery – von Osten believed his horse could count, but that the horse had learned to interpret subtle cues that helped it to the right “answer.” Von Osten was devastated.

On the language front, Washington had its own star.  Washoe a chimpanzee thought to be the first animal to learn a human language was housed in the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.  The chimpanzee learned and could use about 250 American Sign Language signs to express even abstract concepts like happiness and sadness and to describe objects that were not in the same room.  Wahoe was even said to teach signing to another chimp.  

Most recently there has been news of a tool making cockatoo named Figaro who makes little rakes to pull objects outside its cage to a point within beak reach.  Figaro not only makes these little rakes by chewing a big splinter off his perch, but makes new ones every time they are needed.  This is pretty complicated behavior and reminiscent of chimpanzees who make simple tools in the wild to catch termites – a favorite food.  We may be impressed with Figaro’s diligence and with the capability needed to fashion a tool to do a specific job, but it still reminds us a bit of friends who can never find their 10 millimeter wrench and have to run to the hardware store to get a new one.

All of these animal performances are impressive and they advance our knowledge of the development of the brain and behavior even as we try to understand how our own ancestors developed the ability to speak and count. Fortunately for our species and our own sense of pride, there is no indication that Alex was able to balance a checkbook.

Dinner and a Murder

It’s no secret Homer Smith insurance is a big fan of OlyCAP. They have been helping out folks here on the Olympic Peninsula for almost as long as we have. They have a lot of fine programs and they do a lot of good for kids, adults and seniors.

One of the programs, RSVP – the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, touches all of us in ways we seldom even think about. The program organizes volunteers 55 and over and matches them with volunteer opportunities in community nonprofit organizations, schools and government. The RSVP program started here in 1972 and now manages about 700 volunteers who give thousands of hours of their time every year.

For the last six years or so, RSVP has done a unique annual fundraiser called Dinner and a Murder – a dinner theater format experience that is a lot of fun to attend. In addition to some good eating the RSVP folks always give us a fine play with an interesting twist. The audience at the play actually participates in trying to solve the murder mystery.
The format allows the actors to present an opening act that introduces the characters and stages the murder. An intermission allows folks to have a meal service and eat. During the meal service the actor circulate among the tables answering questions posed by the guests. As the actors return to the stage, the guests at the tables can continue to try to work out the mystery as the play continues. There’s plenty of opportunity for fun during the production as patrons are “arrested” after being charged by friends and colleagues with various heinous offenses and then bailed out by their friends.

For the last several years this popular event has been run on two nights to accommodate all the people who want to see it. The show is always enjoyable and it benefits a program that returns a huge amount to our community in the volunteer hours that are contributed to local organizations.  This year the venue is moving to a new location at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.  The play is called “Next Stop, MURDER” and it is written and directed by Ramon Dailey. The show is a classic Agatha Christie style train mystery, with a twist.

The Port Townsend Mystery Group presents the show and the actors donate their time and talent to support RSVP; the show this year show promises to be great fun like the ones before it.  Two shows will be held this year on November 30th and December 1st. It’s a great opportunity for safe and sane holiday party for businesses or a nice evening out for families. You can get more information about the show at OlyCAP’s website or call 360-385-2571 for ticket information.

Homer Smith Insurance has supported OlyCAP for years; we hope you will as well.  If you go to HSI’s Facebook page and “like” us, we will contribute a dollar more to OlyCAP.

Paying for Health Care for the Uninsured

We are getting near the end of the presidential election season and, as is often the case, healthcare costs are in the news. This election cycle, questions often circulate around “Obamacare”; some folks like it, some folks don’t. We don’t have a crystal ball that tells us what might happen under this plan, but it looks like no one else does either. There are some facts we can look at that may help people draw their own conclusions about healthcare in general.

We got to thinking about this when statisticbrain.com published some recent data about the number of uninsured people in our country. According to their statistics, the number of uninsured people in the United States is now over 16%. Since the Medicare system provides insurance for people 65 and over, that overall number doesn’t tell the whole story. A little over 18% of people under 65 are uninsured and if you slice the data a little different way, 32% of people who live below the poverty line are uninsured. There is also a disparity by states. The state with the lowest percentage of uninsured people is Massachusetts (4.4%) and the state with the largest number of uninsured is Texas (26.1%).

This many people without health insurance is a real problem. First, it is a problem for them because people who are uninsured tend to get less care and people who are insured. Kaiser did a study in 2004 that indicated that people without insurance spend about half of what people with insurance spend on medical care and that included uncompensated care. According to their study,” Compared to persons who have health insurance, the uninsured:

  • receive less preventive care,
  • are diagnosed at more advanced disease states and
  • once diagnosed, tend to receive less therapeutic care and have higher mortality rates. “

So what happens when people don’t have insurance? Well, you can infer from the Kaiser study that they delay getting care as long as they can and some probably avoid care completely. Some others pay their bills out-of-pocket, but it is difficult today for anyone to pay a major hospital bill out-of-pocket. So people who need medical care and receive it through hospitals receives what is known as “uncompensated care” sometimes called charity care.

Many hospitals provide a lot of uncompensated care – millions of dollars’ worth each year in individual hospitals and billions of dollars across the nation’s hospitals. Locally, Olympic Medical Center reported providing $9.4 million in uncompensated care in 2011; Jefferson HealthCare has also been generous in providing care for those without Washington insurance over the years. However, you have to understand that “uncompensated” just means that the individual doesn’t pay – medical care providers must still make up the difference somehow.

That brings us to the second problem: who pays for uncompensated care?  You probably won’t be too surprised to find that the answer is pretty much you.  The federal government provides some compensation through programs that supplement Medicare and Medicaid programs, the states provide some support to individual state programs and of course some amount is written off by the physicians and institutions providing care. A big chunk is funded through cost shifting, that is, increasing costs in one area to offset the losses in another area.  The cost of uncompensated care provided by hospitals gets passed along to families and employers with private insurance. A 2009 study reported by Families USA indicated that uncompensated care costs accounted for an increase on family health coverage of $1,017 in 2008.  McKinsey & Company, a respected consulting firm, has also found that premiums of commercial health insurance policies, paid largely by employers, help subsidize health care for the uninsured (as well as subsidizing some care through government-sponsored programs).

It makes little difference where you stand on the politics of health care; every solution proposed has to somehow take into account the problem of dealing with the health care costs incurred by the uninsured.