Employment difficult for injured construction worker

by MADISON RICE

Some of us talk about the time we broke our arm in the fifth grade, or maybe how we tore our ACL or MCL playing football or hiking. But would you be telling these glory stories if you knew John Holt?

Holt, 40, an action junkie, lives in West Valley City and has years of accidents and injuries under his construction belt. When he’s not doing a construction job, this single guy can be found snowboarding or wakeboarding — and doing anything else that gives him an adrenaline rush.

“I broke my first arm when I was 3,” Holt said. Since then, he’s been in more than a dozen car accidents and has even fallen off a roof during a job.

“I fell off a two-story roof with a ladder around my legs. I broke my wrist in two places, sheared the bone of my elbow off, broke a couple ribs, and sprained my ankles,” he said. “I’m starting to rethink if I am accident prone.”

However one might interpret these injuries, they have taken a toll on his body and are the very reason Holt can no longer find work in the job he loves. Contractors and construction businesses simply will not hire him because of his extensive injuries and dependence on medication.

“After being hurt so much, they want to know what your history is like and they find out about my medication and then they don’t want me. I’m highly skilled but my back is messed up,” he said. “I’m a fairly decent guy. I have talent. But I’m not young anymore and that makes it difficult.”

For the past eight years, Holt has gotten by doing construction work for friends and through referrals, but he realizes now more than ever that he cannot rely on an unsteady and unsure income. His medical bills alone are more than $400 a month. So Holt has begun the application process to go on disability, following advice from many of the doctors who have treated him.

“I have been avoiding it because it seems like giving up to me,” Holt said.
According to Matt Knotts, executive director of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City, the program will allow him to do everything but give up.

“The sense of giving up is common, but we approach this issue from the perspective that disability is a natural part of the human condition and in no way diminishes an individual’s ability to participate fully in their community,” Knotts said. “Utilizing the public benefits program is completely appropriate.”

Holt began his process with the Disability Law Center in early March 2009, after several months of debating what he would do. If Holt qualifies, he may receive financial help with medications and have back surgery, something he’s needed for a few years.

According to the most recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2007, of the 7.8 million U.S. construction workers, 5 percent reported a nonfatal occupational injury or illness. Of those reporting injury or illness, 62,100 had to transfer jobs. “If they were working in construction and they got hurt, that means they’re probably in a clerical occupation now,” said a BLS expert at the Injury Illness Office in Washington, D.C.

Aware that he may face occupational change in the future, Holt enrolled in a computer class. “I found myself in a computer class with no computer at home. That obviously didn’t work out,” he said.

So Holt met with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation to use its Vocational Rehabilitation services. According to the Web site, the mission of Vocational Rehabilitation “is to assist and empower eligible individuals with disabilities to achieve and maintain meaningful employment.”

Once he is ready for work, Holt will meet with his counselor at the USOR to decide where he needs help. The USOR can give him job coaching, on-the-job training, or referral to an employment service.

“I took an aptitude test and they told me to be an engineer,” he said. “Vocational rehab can help me find a new career, but it’s difficult to jump from construction to what normal people do. There’s a difference in construction people and normal people.”

Holt still waits to hear from the Disability Law Center to see if the organization can help him receive the requested medical procedure for his back. Until then, the Primary Care Network helps him with medication costs.

“One of my prescriptions is $250 a month, and I only pay $5, so there’s a big difference,” he said. He works when jobs come his way and hopes to get his general contracting license and have his own business.

“The disability program will help me get back on my feet. I look at it as a platform to start from,” Holt said. “If I get on it I can jump off after I get my life back again.”