From fishing to logging to mining — dangerous jobs are the engine of Alaska’s economy, and the state has one of the highest workplace fatality rates in the country.
One family in Petersburg, whose only daughter was killed on the job, is trying to change Alaska’s workers compensation laws.
KFSK’s Shelby Herbert has been following the family’s journey, and she explained that the woman who died was not actually working in a dangerous position.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Shelby Herbert: In the summer of 2016, there was a fatal crash that took the lives of two young women who were working for Petersburg’s Parks and Recreation Department — 18-year-old Molly Parks and 19-year-old Marie Giesbrecht. They were riding in a borough van to set up a race for the town’s Fourth of July celebration.
The driver of the van, Chris Allen, suffered a seizure and drove the van through a guardrail. He survived — but Molly and Marie died in the wreck and another passenger was injured. The thing is, Allen’s supervisors were aware of his medical condition before they gave him the keys to the van. He’d had a few seizures working at the front desk.
Molly Parks had no dependents. So her parents were entitled to about $10,000 — just enough to cover funeral costs. But that amount is actually pretty standard nationwide, for people with no dependents.
Michael Fanelli: What does this tell us about the picture of workers’ comp in Alaska?
SH: So, Alaska’s workplace death benefits are pretty much par for the course, when compared to other states. But Alaska’s incident rate — the number of reported injuries and fatalities across the state’s workforce — is significantly higher than the national average. I asked Charles Collins, the Alaska director of Workers’ Compensation about why that is. He said that’s probably a factor of the type of work performed in Alaska, due to our resource development and seafood economies.
MF: But Molly was just a passenger in a regular work vehicle right? She wasn’t working a particularly unsafe job.
SH: That’s right. Even though many Alaskans who die or get injured at work are performing dangerous jobs, any change to existing workers’ comp law could help people who have a claim in the future. And that’s what the Parks family is trying to do now.
MF: Ok, so what part of the law are they trying to change?
SH: They want to make it easier to get compensation from an employer when their negligence results in death or injury to an employee. The courts convicted the driver of the van of manslaughter, but the family lost their wrongful death lawsuit against the borough this spring.
Two of the three judges on that panel ruled that the borough followed Alaska law regarding the Workers’ Compensation Act, on the basis that the allegations against the borough didn’t meet the requirements of an intentional harm claim. So, the Parks family would have had to prove that the Borough intended to hurt the victims of the crash, which they weren’t able to do. A third judge actually dissented from that ruling, saying it was a clear miscarriage of justice, but she was overruled.
MF: So what’s the family’s plan for legislative action?
SH: The family wants to change the state’s exclusivity provision, which in the Parks family’s case, meant they had to try to prove that Molly’s employer meant to hurt her.
The proposed legislation would change the statute to hold employers accountable if their negligence creates a situation that injures or kills an employee. Here’s what Mark Choate, the Parks family’s attorney, said about helping them bring their case to the state Legislature.
“I think it’s our responsibility to show what a really wonderful young woman she was and how much she had to do and how much everyone wanted to be there when she did these things in her life,” Choate said. “And that’s all gone because there was just ridiculously bad behavior — when you give keys to somebody who has an uncontrollable seizure disorder and shouldn’t be driving.”
So this proposed change could make it easier for the high number of Alaska workers who get hurt on the job, or their next of kin, to pursue damages against their employers.
MF: Got it, so what’s next?
SH: The legislative session starts in mid-January, and there’s still a lot up in the air. I spoke with Workers’ Comp Director Charles Collins about the Parks family’s idea. He said he’s seen a lot of public interest in changing Alaska workers’ comp laws in the past, and the state Legislature has taken public comment on amending death benefits. But none of those ideas for reform have ever been added to the books.
The family’s legal team is hoping to be able to get sponsors for the bill in the state House and Senate by mid-December. And if they succeed in getting workers’ comp law changed, they hope it’ll be called “Molly’s Law.”