As an attorney who practices in the field of Workers’ Compensation, there are some events that are seminal in the history of workplace safety. One of those events was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 2011. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest factories in New York and employed 500 mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women between the ages of 13 and 23.
These women worked long hours for low wages in this cramped sweatshop at sewing machines to produce women’s blouses, known in those days as shirtwaists. In order to protect themselves from their claim of thefts by the workers, the factory owners would lock the doors to one of the stairways leading to the street. While the union movement in New York was very strong and some of the workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the factory itself was a non-union shop; many believed the owners would lock their doors to keep organizers out. Whatever the reason, locking those doors had devastating effects.
On that fateful day in March, a fire broke out that was fueled by thousands of pounds of fabric. Many were able to escape to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. Unfortunately for those on the ninth floor, there was very little means of escape. The elevator proved inadequate as it was only able to accommodate 12 people at a time, and the operator was only able to make four trips before it broke down totally. Bodies of many of the workers were found at the bottom of locked stairwells or in the elevator shaft when they tried to escape. The fire escape was flimsy and when it became overloaded with panicked women, it broke and sent dozens to their death. Those trapped in the factory by the fire were left with the agonizing choice of jumping to their deaths or being burned alive. Many chose to jump. Bystanders recounted stories of seeing victims kiss each other or hold hands as they jumped two and three at a time; they described the horrific thud as bodies landed on the stone streets below. When the final tally was taken, 146 people had perished. The catastrophe sent shockwaves throughout New York City and the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where families struggled to recognize the charred remains of their loved ones in makeshift morgues.
On March 24, 1911, the New York Court of Appeals declared the state’s compulsory Workers’ Compensation law unconstitutional. The next day, 146 people were dead from that Triangle Shirtwaist fire. With no Workers’ Compensation system in place, family members and dependents had to turn to the courts in an attempt to force Triangle to compensate the injured and the families of the deceased. A civil suit brought by 23 victims’ families against the owners netted a whopping $75 in damages per victim! New Yorkers were appalled and angry at the greed and negligence of the owners and managers.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a preventable tragedy caused by unsafe work conditions and was a catalyst for change. New York finally adopted a Workers’ Compensation law in 1913. This law was intended to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and afford them with wage replacement benefits and medical treatment in exchange for giving up their right to sue. Unfortunately, we see an erosion of many of these benefits under the guise of reform, while insurance companies have made record profits. This month, while we acknowledge this grim anniversary, we need to make sure that these women’s deaths were not in vain. Let us never forget the reason Workers’ Compensation laws were enacted, and let’s be sure the system is not watered down to the point that injured workers and their families go back to getting $75 for a preventable death.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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