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Reversal for pork plant workers denied workers comp

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Quality Pork Processors
The Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minn.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Several employees at the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin who were initially denied workers compensation for a mysterious neurological illness will be paid after all, attorneys said.

      At least 18 workers have suffered symptoms of the illness, which was first made public by health officials in December.

Attorney Paul Dahlberg, who represents several of the workers along with Tom Patterson, said Patterson was notified over the weekend by a representative of Quality Pork's workers compensation insurance carrier. Dahlberg said they represent some 10 clients.

Dahlberg said his clients had not yet sued, and he declined to name them.

A Quality Pork employee who had filed a lawsuit, Susan Kruse, was told Monday that her workers' comp claim would be honored, attorney Ray Peterson said.

"They rolled over on Susan's case, at least at this point, and are accepting all liability for her," Peterson said Monday.

Dahlberg said it was great news for his clients.

"That helps with their short-term financial problems considerably - the wage loss and unpaid bills and things of that nature," Dahlberg said. He didn't have precise figures.

Quality Pork's workers comp insurance carrier is American Home Assurance Company, a unit of American International Group Inc. AIG spokesman Joe Norton said Tuesday the company is "voluntarily paying all lost wage and medical benefits that we can clearly document are related" to the condition. He said he didn't know how many claims were involved and said he couldn't comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.

Kelly Wadding, owner and president of Quality Pork, and other company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday and Tuesday. Wadding's voice mail said he was out of the country on vacation.

All of the affected employees worked at or near a station at the plant called the "head table," where workers used compressed air to blow brains out of pig skulls.

Investigators from the Mayo Clinic and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a neurology conference in Chicago last week that their working hypothesis is that some of the brain tissue was turned into a fine mist during the process, the workers became exposed to it and somehow developed an autoimmune response that caused nerve damage. They call the condition progressive inflammatory neuropathy, or PIN, but said they don't fully understand it yet.

Kruse said she began experiencing symptoms, including tingling and pain in her legs, in November or December of 2006, and hasn't been able to work since Feb. 19, 2007.

"My doctors have told me there is no return to work," Kruse said in a telephone interview. She said she still gets "that tingly feeling every once and a while" but her main problem now is she tires quickly.

"There's no way I can work an eight-hour shift," she said. She said she can't stand on her feet that long, even at home. She said she is getting intravenous drug treatments every other week.

Peterson said Kruse's workers comp claim will be paid retroactive to when she had to stop working, and that the payments could continue indefinitely if she remains unable to work. Under Minnesota law, workers comp covers medical expenses and two-thirds of lost wages. Peterson said it doesn't cover full wages because the payments are tax exempt.

Peterson said he couldn't estimate how much money Kruse will receive because some complicated math remains to be done.

Dahlberg said one of his clients had an account  balance of over $13,000 with Mayo. "This  individual is not the worst off of the group by far," he said. "None of these people have that kind of money."

Many of Dahlberg's clients are in their 20s and  30s, some with families to support. While health investigators have said several of the affected workers have improved, Dahlberg said his clients are still suffering.

"This illness just makes them invalid, decrepit,"  he said.

"It's absolutely horrible. They have trouble walking, taking care of their kids. They're scared to death. ... They're young people and now all of a sudden they're living like they're 80 years old. It's really shocking."

      Kruse said she had no plans for using her check except to pay "a whole lot of bills." She said she'd had no serious problems with her creditors because she's tried to send them a little money every month so they know she's trying to pay.

      She was stoic about her treatment by Quality Pork and its insurance carrier.

      "There's nothing that they can do different, it's done," she said. "We're on the good side of it right now and as long as they're willing to go ahead with this and get it straightened out now, that's what counts."