Just over a week ago I joined the pruning crew at a pear orchard near Allentown. This weekend, I’m on the verge of quitting it. I have some personal reasons having nothing to do with the company and some concerns about workplace safety, like not wanting to get pitched overboard while riding seated on the lip of a pickup bed, but the last straw may well be a medical history questionnaire that the orchard manager is on my case to turn in by Monday. Take a look at this:
Please answer all of the following questions:
Have you had or do you have:
Deformity or Impairment (Physical)
Gall Bladder Trouble
High Blood Pressure
St. Vitus Dance
Tumor (Any Type)
Explain all items checked “YES”
I hereby declare that all my answers to the preceding medical questionnaire are complete and true.
How about I explain all items checked “NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS, PARTNER.” Let’s say that I did have a history of nervous migraines from extreme psychotherapy. You got a problem with that, boss? Because these sure as hell don’t look like things that would have been put on the questionnaire if someone in HR didn’t consider them important.
Let me repeat that I’m being bugged to turn in this medical questionnaire as part of my orientation packet for a job pruning pear trees. Literally all I’ve done at this job over the course of six full workdays is lopping and sawing off branches, climbing up onto the third or fourth rung of an aluminum ladder a few times a day, and putting brush into piles. That’s it. It’s not like I failed to get cleared by a flight surgeon and, oops, I’m totally at the controls of a goddamn 747-400, cleared for takeoff and rolling across the threshold of the Bay runway for the six o’clock run to Heathrow, so let’s throttle this fucker up and see how she handles. I’m not even driving a fucking tractor.
I pruna da pear tree. It’s almost as simple as it sounds; there are certain cuts that they want you to make, and others that they don’t want you to make, and if you have a question you can ask somebody and maybe he’ll have an answer. Maybe.
This company gave me less than two hours of dedicated on-the-job training because that was all I needed to convince the crew boss that I more or less knew what I was doing, since the older hands are there to offer advice, if they have any. And its HR department is trying to light a fire under my ass to turn in a “complete and true” list of dozens of medical and psychiatric conditions that I may have had.
They can pry that list out of my convulsive, arthritic hands. Good God. This can’t have anything serious to do with healthcare benefits, since they aren’t offering me any; this is a $9.50/hour seasonal job that may not last two and a half months. Even if they were offering health insurance, their insurer should be forced by regulators to take on the risk like a big boy and spread it appropriately since insurance is supposed to be about, like, spreading risk and stuff. Right? Maybe not–this is American healthcare, after all–but it’s a nice idea.
They aren’t scheduling me for an entry physical exam, either. I worked for an environmental consulting firm that sent me to entry and exit physicals. This seemed appropriate enough at the time, and it still seems appropriate enough. The physical was paid for completely by the employer, and it was administered by a physician whose professional license would have been at stake had she improperly divulged information from the examination. This is crucial. No one’s pesticide applicator’s license is at risk for misusing an employee’s medical information. These people who are asking me for all this sensitive personal information have nothing meaningful to lose by misappropriating my medical information, nor have they been trained in any meaningful professional ethics about the sanctity of client or patient information.
Saying that they’re qualified to collect and maintain my medical history is like saying that I’m qualified to hear confessions while flying a 747. Come into the cockpit; may God bless you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, cleared to land two-five left United 967. It’s a fucking joke, until it becomes serious because someone gets stupid or malicious or crooked. This is not a prudent risk to accept.
It takes some real gall for an employer to demand this sort of information from employees whose jobs don’t require a full morning of training. Any society where people are conditioned to accept this sort of gratuitous intrusion from HR managers and their representatives is in bad shape. It’s a hallmark of advanced civic and sociological degradation. It’s a huge problem in the United States, and it seems to be pretty bad in the United Kingdom and in economically ravaged parts of Continental Europe.
A self-respecting people reflexively asks whether those demanding sensitive information have a snowball’s chance in hell of knowing how to use it or possessing the moral character not to misuse it. When I applied to the San Diego Police Department, I was asked dozens of really creepy questions, but the SDPD is a well-disciplined paramilitary organization with an ingrained code of honor, one that sincerely does not want to hire a bunch of thugs or jackoffs. It’s different if Paul Blart wants to interrogate me about why I’m engaged in “note-taking activity” at Fashion Valley so that he can submit a breathless report to the Fusion Center. No, fuck you very much, Blart, I’m calling the real cops. Sure, the ones who rejected me; how did you do on the PAT and the PIQ?. (True story: I once used the “If you see something, say something” text number for MTS security to report an out-of-control non-sworn transit security officer for trying to start a fight with an unruly passenger on the Blue Line. In a matter of minutes, an operator got back to me to say that the matter would be referred to the MTS Police for investigation.)
There don’t seem to be any puffed-up police academy rejects hanging around the orchard, but there is a blowhard with a Volvo and an attitude and his inscrutable lieutenant, the orchard manager. Employees who have been there for years can’t really figure these guys out, especially the orchard manager; the consensus about Volvo Dude seems to be that he’s basically a condescending asshole. When guys like these are asking for access to one’s medical information, liking them or not doesn’t matter. I happen to more or less like both of them at this point. No way in hell does this mean that I trust them when they ask me questions the likes of which I wouldn’t ask my closest friends without an invitation.
To say the least, I was apprehensive about the medical questionnaire from the moment I laid eyes on it, but having a better idea of what the rest of the crew, including the crew bosses, thinks of these two orchard managers makes me even more uneasy about the idea of letting either of them see my medical history. They’re both widely regarded as tactless or the next thing to it. Volvo Dude drops in from time to time during winter pruning season, mainly for administrative reasons. The other day, he stopped by to give us a top-of-the-morning lecture on the new I-9 form, including a digression about the illegitimacy of Bill de Blasio’s new municipal ID and how “it can be parlayed into all sorts of government services.” Cool story, bro; real nice job waving the bloody shirt about illegals. Another time, he spent a much longer staff meeting talking about all the cars that he’d bought. The most telling story about him, however, is the infamous “burning bridges” lecture that he delivered to a departing employee at his going-away party for wearing a “Take This Job and Shove It” T-shirt on his last day at work. Volvo Dude’s lieutenant, the orchard manager, is just kind of weird. He seems to have a problem modulating his interactions with other people, so that his tone ends up completely off without warning.
Would you want these guys to know that you were once under psychiatric care? They may be fun company, but they’re loose cannons. Their employees, one of the most reasonable and astute groups of people I’ve worked with, regularly have pointed things to say about them. Nobody had similar things to say about the owners of the vineyard where I worked last year, and they never inquired about our medical and psychiatric histories. It was one of the reasons we figured they weren’t wackos: they didn’t ask us creepy-ass questions that were flat none of their business.
Employee intake medical questionnaires appear to be on shaky legal ground. They’ve gotten a number of companies into trouble with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with HR using adverse health information against competent employees to fire them, dock them pay, or deny them promotions because they perceive minor disabilities, often ones that won’t even require significant “reasonable accommodations.” They’ve gotten employers into trouble with HIPAA and GINA, too. When I was haphazardly researching the legality of employee medical questionnaires, I came across websites suggesting that some Commonwealth countries are ahead of the United States in protecting employees and applicants from intrusive lines of questioning about their medical histories.
If you’re wondering why bureaucracies like the EEOC exist, this is why. Intrusive creeps in HR won’t police themselves. They need to be fondled by the long arm of the law. It’s the only way. It’s kind of like how cities need police departments, even troubled departments, because the alternative is unconscionable chaos. You ever been polar-beared by a thug hiding behind a minivan in Black Kensington? I have, and I would not have shed copious tears had some racist Irishman with a two-tone blue dress uniform and a temper problem materialized and given the thug a good timely crack on the head. God knows what Crouching Hoodlum wanted to do to me, but it was ugly. Sure, there’s some wankery and self-dealing in the labor enforcement bureaucracies, but the alternative is having the boot of some vicious, unencumbered private actor forever stomping on one’s face.
Lordy do we need single-payer health insurance in this country. Providing it as a consolation prize for reaching old age is fucking not enough. Instead, the wartime wage control expediency of employer health coverage–yes, from WWII–continues to bite us in the ass, giving employers a vaguely plausible excuse to intrude into our psychiatric histories so that we may have the privilege of working on orchard crews. This is because we’re a contemptible country.
So we’re waiting here in Allentown (actually, New Smithville), for the Pennsylvania we never found, but at least Corbett is about to leave the building, even if Wolf is a milquetoast cipher who makes a Californian who used to live here appreciate Moonbeam. And that’s all I have to say about guys named Tom for this essay.
And if anyone has a problem with my publishing the contents of an internal employee health survey, kindly suck it, guvnah. Some bridges burn hotter than others.