Ever wonder how health care costs got so high in the auto industry? Take a look at how the UAW mined the Medical Mothelode at Ford in the 70s. Back then we worked seven days a week, many of them 12 hour days. It was forced overtime. Not like you had a choice. We worked Easter Sunday, July 4th, Thanksgiving. Christmas was just another working day where we got paid a lot of money instead of regular pay.

But one out was the “doctor’s slip” strategy. If you were off work all you had to do was get a doctor’s slip. Ford could not argue with a doctor’s slip. Which gave birth to a whole new revenue stream for doctors located near auto plants. True, most doctor’s had the integrity to give you a slip to excuse you from work only if you were legitimately ill. But at least three doctor’s had a doctor slip mill going. You would make an appointement, tell the doctor that you needed to be off work and for $25 he would write you a slip with explicit instructions “this patient cannot return to work until….” and you told him how long you needed to be off.

At Sharonville we had virtual epidemics during deer season. It was simply amazing how many strong, healthy men developed illnesses. It got to the point that Ford said it would not recognize slips from certain doctors, and if you were ill you had to go to a doctor approved by Ford. This went over like a lead baloon. Men went to their attorneys. Letters were written to Ford, threatening lawsuits. The whole thing about only accepting slips from “Ford Approved” doctors was dropped, and everything returned to normal.  

Everybody knew who the deer hunters were. The ones that worked for me gave me a little hint. “Yeh, Bob. I got this pain in my back. Believe I’ll have to go see a doctor.” He would walk away with a wry smile. It was his way of telling me that it was deer season, he was outta there, and I had better plan on getting some overtime coverage.

Then there were the drunks. When they came to work too drunk to run their machine I would send them home with a warning. When their addiction became so great that their jobs were jeprodized they would bring in the standard doctor’s slip, go home and dry out for a few days, and then return to begin the cycle all over again.

Abuse of the extremely liberal medical benefits was so common that it was hard for a foreman to distinguish between the game players and employees who had legitimate medical problems. I remember the case of Bill P. Bill was an excellent employee. In fact, he went years without missing a day. Then one day he did not come in. Didn’t come in the next day, either, or the next.

Ford’s policy in cases like this was to send a “Five Day Quit” telegram to the man’s home, advising him that he has been off work for five days, with no doctor’s slip, and if he did not return in five more working days, he would be terminated via a “Ten Day Quit telegram.”

After 10 days Bill did not show up for work, and I was required to send him a 10 day quit telegram.  A few days later his wife called me. Bill had died. She received the 5 day quit when he was on his death bed and the family was gathered. She received the 10 day quit telegram the day Bill was buried. This distressed me greatly, since Bill was one of my best employees. With great sadness I informed my boss that Bill had died. He looked at me like I was wasting his time with information like this and said “So borrow another nig… from the labor pool and  and post the job. Why would I give a damn? People die all the time.” 

Family stress created by the working atmosphere also created a lot of work for doctors, hospitals, family counselors, and addition counselors. Much of the legacy costs of medical benefits that burden the auto industry today originated in the auto plants.

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