Repetitive Stress Ruling Could Affect Newspapers

By: Todd Shields

Updated at 11 a.m. EST

A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Jan. 8 could make it harder for newspaper workers with repetitive-stress injuries to get help, according to union officials who plan to emphasize the issue in contract negotiations. But newspaper representatives say the ruling will have little effect, if any.

The high court last week decided an automobile plant worker afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome was not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates accommodations for the disabled. In its unanimous ruling, the court said an inability to perform some tasks at work does not constitute a disability.

The decision may hold special significance for the newspaper industry, where workers suffer repetitive trauma disorders at higher rates than the rest of private industry. The number of such injuries reported by newspapers to the federal government has dropped steadily since peaking in 1993.

Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, said that, despite improvements, workers need newspaper companies to provide accommodations such as carefully designed lift stations and ergonomically sound keyboards and chairs.

“It’s going to be much more difficult for an employee to raise a claim and a demand for a reasonable accommodation,” Foley said. She said the Guild would increasingly focus on repetitive-stress injuries in future contract negotiations. “We’ll be more vigilant and more aggressive in that. We have no choice,” Foley said.

An official with the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) called the high court’s ruling “narrow,” saying it contained nothing that would encourage newspapers to alter the training, equipment, and other support they have long offered to those who suffer repetitive-stress injuries. “They’re doing it because they value their employees. They value them — and they need them to work,” said Mary Sepucha, director of employee relations, the NAA department that monitors developments in human resources and labor.

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