Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The comments on this Yarnell Hill Fire widow story may shake your faith in humanity

Ever have one of those days when you say to yourself, "Hey!  I wonder what depths humanity can sink to?"  Maybe you wonder to yourself if there are limits to the human conscience and empathy for others.  Or if there are things that maybe people just think to themselves but would never say in public, even in this age of internet anonymity, if only because human society depends on a certain degree of discretion so that we all don't start killing each other.

Well, if you really want answers to these questions, look no further than the NY Daily News's comments section.  Specifically the backtalk on Joe Kemp's recent article about the city of Prescott denying benefits to the widow of Andrew Ashcraft, one of nineteen firefighters killed June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill fire.  The city ruled that Ashcraft was a temporary employee and therefore his widow, Juliann, was not entitled to widow's compensation.  Her husband was deemed a "seasonal" employee, itself a highly ironic determination given that Arizona's wildfire season is, well, seasonal!

The Yarnell Hill Fire was remarkable not just for the loss of life, but also because of the outpouring of support for the families of the fallen firefighters.  Fundraisers across the state raised thousands of dollars for them.  Which I suppose is what makes the city of Prescott's decision to deny benefits to Ashcraft so outrageous to so many people.  But not everyone, apparently.

A series of very negative comments target Ashcraft's widow, Juliann, as a deadbeat and a leach off the public, excoriating her for seeking the same benefits that some of her husband's coworkers have received over what seems like a technicality aimed at saving the city money.  Indeed, one person in particular, an alleged widow posting under the name Patricia Blevins goes at Juliann Ashcraft repeatedly, touting her own sob story as a cover for her attacks.

Indeed, Ashcraft's family asserts that he worked more than full time hours for over a year.  Which is not only believable, but completely unsurprising.  More and more workers in this jobless recovery find themselves pushed into exactly the same precarious, at-will employment, where precious work hours and the accompanying paycheck are held hostage to their boss's whim. 

Employers, both public and private, have used the crisis and the mass unemployment and dislocations that have accompanied it as an opportunity to impose extreme "flexibility" on their employees, which basically means working when the boss finds it useful or, more honestly, profitable, and that, essentially, you're on your own the rest of the time.  This is the right wing dream economy, where no employee can expect anything from her employer, not even that there will be work next week, much less benefits, time off or vacation pay.  It's a world where the bosses have complete dominance over their workforce.  And this is the model for the post-crisis economy.

The Arizona Republic yesterday reported:
City records show Ashcraft was first hired in 2011, when he worked during the fire season. He rejoined the crew in 2012 and worked as a firefighter, then, over the winter, on a city snow-removal crew. He was not paid for a week in February 2013, then, records show, rejoined the crew.
The city has not yet provided records requested by The Republic to document the number of hours Ashcraft worked per week during that time.
Personnel records show Ashcraft signed a form acknowledging his temporary status when he was hired in 2011. The form read, in part, “as a temporary employee I will be paid on an hourly basis and I will not receive the same benefits nor be afforded the same employment protection as those individuals filling positions in the regular service.”
Lori Higuera, a lawyer with Fennemore Craig in Phoenix who specializes in employment issues, said that, in general, the issue of permanent status has little to do with the number of hours an employee works.
She said a temporary employee might work the same hours or more than a full-time, permanent employee and still not qualify for benefits.
“The number of hours per week, or even per day, is not going to change the classification of a temporary or seasonal employee,” Higuera said. “You could be a temporary worker, or seasonal worker, and still be full time.”
But don't expect any empathy for the conditions of workers in the comments section of the NY Daily News.  In tried and true reactionary fashion, the digital loudmouths would much rather aim their keyboard bullets horizontally, or even down the economic ladder, than ever look up for more deserving targets of their rage.

No sense of solidarity, just the perverted class politics typical of America, where someone who's had it hard feels entitled -- obligated even -- to spread the misery and, in essence, to defend the bosses and bureaucrats who make the decisions that determine the kinds of work we get and under what conditions.

So, if you have the stomach for it, and you really must know the answers to those questions about human nature that have bedeviled mankind for eternity, prepare yourself and read on.  I make no guarantees that you will not be changed when you come out the other side.

Photo and screen captures via NY Daily News

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