At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, JoshPotter 25.

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The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were marriedwith two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos oftheir children’s names.

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Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrialplants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion ofhis left arm in a machinery accident.

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After that, though, their paths couldn’t have diverged moresharply: Lewis received just $45,000 in workers’ compensation forthe loss of his arm. Potter was awarded benefits that could surpass$740,000 over his lifetime.

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The reason: Lewis lived and worked in Alabama, which has thenation’s lowest workers’ comp benefits for amputations. Potter hadthe comparative good fortune of losing his arm across the border inGeorgia, which is far more generous when it comes to suchcatastrophic injuries.

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This disparity grimly illustrates the geographic lottery thatgoverns compensation for workplace injuries in America. Congressallows each state to determine its own benefits, with no federalminimums, so workers who live across state lines from each othercan experience entirely different outcomes for identicalinjuries.

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Nearly every state has what’s known as a “schedule of benefits”that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart.

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Original source: ProPublica

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Workers are awarded a portion of their wages up to the statemaximum for the specified number of weeks assigned to each bodypart. But depending on those numbers, the final amounts can varywidely.

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The loss of an arm, for example, is worth up to $48,840 inAlabama, $193,950 in Ohio and $439,858 in Illinois. The big toeranges from $6,090 in California to $90,401.88 in Oregon. Somestates even put a value on the loss of a testicle.

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While these benefit tables are just one part of a largerworkers’ comp system, they provide a vivid picture of the wildlydivergent, sometimes nonsensical patchwork of laws that enragesemployers and employees alike.

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“What’s the difference? You lose your leg, it don’t matter whereyou lose it,” said Eric Bennett, whose insurer says he’s onlyentitled to the Alabama max of $44,000 for the leg he lost at afertilizer mill. “It should be the same. A leg is a leg.”

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The calculus of such losses can be dehumanizing. One worker at aJasper, Alabama, sawmill lost her thumb and every finger save herpinkie when her hand was dragged through the rusty gears of a scrapwood conveyor. But instead of paying the larger sum for her entirehand, the mill’s insurer has offered her only the benefits for eachindividual finger.

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Given their profound impact on people’s lives, how muchcompensation workers get for traumatic injuries seems like it wouldbe the product of years of study, combining medical wisdom andeconomic analysis. But in reality, the amounts are often the resultof political expediency, sometimes based on bargains struck decadesago.

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Such decisions are part of greater rollback in protections forinjured workers nationwide. Over the past decade, a ProPublica andNPR investigation found, state after state has slashed workers’comp benefits, driven by calls from employers and insurers to lowercosts.

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In fact, employers are now paying the lowest rates for workers’comp than at any time since the 1970s. Nonetheless, dozens oflegislatures have changed their workers’ comp laws, often citingthe need to compete with neighboring states and be more attractiveto business.

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The changes have forced injured workers’ families and taxpayers“to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical carecosts generated by these conditions,” the Occupational Safety andHealth Administration said in a report issued Wednesday that echoed several ofProPublica and NPR’s findings.

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Alabama’s amputation benefit, long among the nation’s stingiest,sent Lewis into just the kind of downward spiral workers’ comp wasintended to prevent.

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“I mean, I done lost everything I owned,” said Lewis. “I lost myhouse, three brand new vehicles. There wasn’t no way that thatamount of money was going to replace what I’d lost.”

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After foreclosure, Lewis and his family moved from theirthree-bedroom stucco home in a new development in Albertville to arundown singlewide trailer on the outskirts of town.

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Graphic on value of a body part
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On the other side of the Alabama-Georgia border, Potter has beenable to maintain some semblance of his former life.

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The Georgia maximum for a lost arm is $118,125, more than doublethat of Alabama. More importantly, workers who lose a limb inGeorgia are entitled to two-thirds of their wages until they returnto work or, if they can’t, for as long as they live.

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While Potter’s hardly getting rich off workers’ comp, the $285 aweek he receives has prevented his family from going under.

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“I’m lucky,” he said, upon hearing what happened to Lewis. “Asof right now, we’ve lost one vehicle and one’s falling apart. Butwe’re making it work. I can’t imagine if I had to go through whathe has went through.”

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Origin inHammurabi’s Code

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The idea of assigning a value to the loss of a body part datesback to Mesopotamia. Around 2100 B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur decreedthat a man should pay a certain amount of silver for causing theloss of a foot (10 shekels) or a smashed limb (one mina).

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The same concepts run through the better-known Code of Hammurabiand on throughout history.

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When the first workers’ comp laws were adopted in America in theearly 1900s, legislators inserted similar language as a way ofbringing some uniformity to the uniquely harrowing circumstances ofindividual injuries.

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Typically, under workers’ comp, employers are required to buyinsurance that covers medical bills and part of workers’ wagesuntil they’re able return to work, a benefit called “temporarytotal disability.” For the most severe injuries, after which peoplecan no longer work, the insurance covers ongoing lost wages under abenefit called “permanent total disability.”

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In between is a large gray area known as “permanent partialdisability,” where workers are deemed able to work in some capacitybut have suffered serious injuries that will affect them for therest of their lives.

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Outside of medical costs, permanent partial disability is themost expensive and therefore most controversial part of workers’comp. Nearly 40 percent of injured workers with lost-time claimsreceive “permanent partial” benefits, according to the NationalAcademy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan organization thatstudies programs such as Social Security, unemployment insuranceand workers’ comp.

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The benefits are meant to compensate workers for their loss offunction as well as for future lost wages, but economists havefound they don’t come close, falling short even in states far moregenerous than Alabama.

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A 2004 study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for EmploymentResearch in Kalamazoo, Michigan, noted that 10 years after theirinjuries, workers awarded permanent partial benefits had lost about55 percent to 70 percent of their earnings.

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In part, this reflects that many workers who receive benefitsfor partial disabilities under workers’ comp never return to work.Some, like Lewis, are eventually deemed permanently disabled by theSocial Security Administration and receive monthly checks from thefederal government.

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A bargaining chip

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One of the things that makes Alabama’s approach to permanentpartial disability benefits so perplexing is that almost everyoneseems to agree that it’s unfair.

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The amount of lost wages covered — capped at $220 a week — wasset by the legislature in 1985. But unlike other parts of Alabama’sworkers’ comp law, it was never tied to inflation.

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The amount is now the lowest in the country. Providing just$11,440 a year, it is below the poverty line for a single personand not even half the poverty line for a family of four. Andbenefits for arm amputations, for example, end after fouryears.

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“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Sister Lynn McKenzie, a Catholicnun who used to be a workers’ comp attorney and state mediator.“There’s no way you can feed a family on that, much less have aroof over your head.”

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Even the head of the Alabama Defense Lawyers Association — agroup that typically represents big employers and insurancecompanies — agrees.

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“It’s an injustice what they’re doing,” said Dudley Motlow.“It’s just too low. How much money do you have to make to beconsidered poor folks in this country?”

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Until the last decade, lawyers for injured workers used variousloopholes to get courts to consider extenuating circumstances andobtain higher benefits. But since 2002, the Alabama Supreme Courtand the Court of Civil Appeals have made it increasingly difficultfor workers with traumatic limb injuries to get anything more thanwhat’s outlined in the schedule of benefits.

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Judges in many states can take into account a worker’s age oreducation when determining compensation for such injuries. Not inAlabama. There, a worker with a crushed hand who’s only done manuallabor his entire life — and may be permanently out of work —receives no more compensation than a worker whose hand is lessimportant to his job.

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“What you’re doing is saying, ‘We don’t give a damn if you’re abrain surgeon or a hobo on the side of the railroad tracks — you’regoing to get the same amount of money,’ ” Motlow said.

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Some Alabama judges have decried the state’s paltry remedy forlife-altering injuries, even as they’ve acknowledged there’s littlethey can do about it.

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“The trial courts of Alabama see these workers leave ourcourtrooms week after week, without the ability to supportthemselves or their families, because of their on-the-job permanentinjuries,” wrote Judge J. Scott Vowell of the Jefferson CountyCircuit Court in Birmingham in a lengthy 2008 ruling. “They leaveour courthouses with relatively small ‘lump sum’ checks in theirpockets and after that is spent for their necessities, who knows orcares what becomes of them?”

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Vowell called the $220 cap “manifestly inadequate,” but said itwas up to legislators, not courts, to fix it, though he noted thatinjured workers “have no effective lobbying group to speak forthem.”

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“Perhaps,” he wrote, “if the public were made aware of theunfairness of the present system, reform could beaccomplished.”

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But Vowell’s call has gone unheeded by Democratic and Republicanpolitical leaders alike.

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Attempts to raise the cap have been met with demands from thebusiness community to reduce benefits elsewhere. Employers complainthat Alabama’s workers’ comp system covers certain medical costsmore generously than other states and guarantees lifetime benefitsto workers deemed permanently and totally disabled even if theylive to 100.

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Lifetime benefits remain the norm in the vast majority of thecountry, but several states, including Florida and North Carolina,have passed laws in recent years cutting off workers’ comp benefitsat or near retirement age. Others, such as Mississippi, have longlimited permanently disabled workers to no more than nine years ofbenefits.

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“I could give you a list of some other things that in Alabamaare unfair to the employer,” said Charles Carr, whose firm CarrAllison represents Walmart, Tyson Foods and Liberty MutualInsurance, among others. “I say that what we should do is we shouldfix both sides of those inequities.”

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Carr contends that increasing one workers’ comp benefit withoutaddressing others would make doing business in Alabama moreexpensive than in other states in the Southeast.

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“This state has got to remain competitive,” said Carr, who isalso executive director of the Alabama Self-Insurers Association, agroup of companies large enough to pay their own claims withoutbuying policies from insurance companies. “We’re not going to beable to attract industry if our overall workers’ compensation costsare out of control.”

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Currently, Alabama’s average premium costs rank in the middle ofthe pack, workers’ comp data shows. Arkansas and Mississippi arecheaper, while Louisiana and South Carolina are more expensive.Georgia’s rate is about the same.

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The only way to fix the problem, Carr said, is to get all thespecial interest groups to stop fighting. He called on Alabama Gov.Robert Bentley to form a “blue-ribbon” committee made up ofrepresentatives for workers, employers and the medical community tocome up with a compromise.

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But McKenzie said the notion that injured workers should have togive something up to raise the $220 cap is “fixing it on the backsof those who are hurt the most.”

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“That’s what I think is morally wrong.”

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A tale of two arms

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The aroma of fried chicken drifts from the Pilgrim’s Pridepoultry plant on the shores of Lake Guntersville. Day and night,trucks rumble in and out of the front gates through white wisps ofsmoke that emanate from the plant.

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Lewis got his start there in 1999, when it was still owned byGold Kist, following the path of his mother, who worked there as ameat grader for 32 years.

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“If you weren’t working there, you pretty much weren’t makingany money,” Lewis said, referring to the region’s limited jobopportunities.

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Before his injury, Lewis earned an average of $870 a weekincluding overtime. His wife also worked at the plant, and theircombined income supported a middle-class home and life for them andtheir two children.

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Lewis worked at the feed mill next to the processing plant,loading trucks with chicken feed for the company’s various poultryfarms nearby. Corn and soybeans would pour out of the toweringconcrete silos through a downspout, and run along a conveyor, knownas a chain auger, to be made into feed.

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One of Lewis’ main jobs was to make sure the corn and soybeansdidn’t clog the spout and stop production. When that happened,Lewis had to use a long metal rod to try to unjam it.

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The day after Thanksgiving in 2006, Lewis was at the tail end ofa 20-hour day that started at 3 a.m. and kept going when anotherworker called in sick. He’d been jabbing at a clog for about 25minutes around 10:30 p.m., he said, when he decided to do what heand others usually did when clogs were really tough: He climbed upon the chain augers to get a better angle.

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But this time, he said, one of the metal covers on the augerhadn’t been bolted down. His boot slipped, and Lewis fell handsfirst into the auger.

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He hung there about 4 to 5 feet off the ground, he said, untilthe auger tore his left arm off and he came crashing down in themud.

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The emergency medical technician told him that he would likelybleed to death before they reached the hospital. Lewis survived,but his arm had to be amputated first below his elbow and later twoinches above due to infections.

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At first, Gold Kist refused to pay workers’ comp, claiming thatmethamphetamine use caused the accident. Lewis denied theaccusation and a judge quickly dismissed the company’s argument,saying it had failed to present enough evidence to even bring theallegation to trial.

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Lewis was awarded temporary wage-replacement benefits while hewas out of work and coverage for two prosthetic arms — a standardone with a metal hook and an advanced one with an electronic handthat could be controlled with the remaining muscles in hisamputated arm.

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After nearly a year of recovery, Lewis’ doctors said hiscondition had stabilized, and he went back to work in a light-dutyjob. The assignment didn’t last long, though, and Lewis soon foundhimself back out at the feed mill.

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Meanwhile, the dispute over the permanent partial disabilitybenefits to compensate him for the loss of his arm dragged on. GoldKist was acquired by Pilgrim’s Pride, which filed for bankruptcy acouple of years later. Pilgrim’s Pride then sold a majority staketo a Brazilian meat company as part of its plan to exit bankruptcy.This delayed Lewis’ case.

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Pilgrim’s Pride did not respond to numerous requests forcomment, and the attorney who handled the claim for the companysaid he couldn’t discuss it without his client’s permission.

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Back at the feed mill, Lewis said, he did a series of jobs withone arm — pulling ropes, climbing ladders and turning a heavy wheelto control the flow of chicken feed. One day in March 2009, Lewislost control of this wheel and the force tore the rotator cuff inhis right shoulder.

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Lewis filed a second workers’ comp claim for the new injury,even as he awaited payment for his first.

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Finally, in March 2013 — six-and-a-half years after his injury —the claim for his arm was settled. A doctor determined he had lost95 percent of his arm, which under the law is worth 211 weeks ofpay at $220 per week, or $46,420. Tired of waiting, Lewis decidedto take the money upfront and agreed to a lump sum payment of$45,000. Minus attorney’s fees and costs, he was left with roughly$33,500, about nine months’ salary.

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Five months later, the company settled the claim for his tornrotator cuff. Though that injury was far less significant, Alabamaconsiders injuries to the shoulder as affecting the body as awhole. That meant Lewis could get out of the draconian benefitschedule and obtain higher compensation under a different part ofthe law. His settlement: $47,500.

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“It blowed my mind,” said Lewis, now 35. “I mean, I got awardedmore for a rotator cuff than I did losing a whole arm. It’s messedup.”

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Lewis and his family now survive on his wife’s wages at Walmartand his monthly Social Security disability check.

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'Complete and totalgarbage'

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About a month after Lewis’ case settled, less than 15 miles overthe state line in the northwest Georgia town of LaFayette, JoshPotter was working at Unique Fabricating, an automotive supplierthat made sound buffers and other insulation materials for thethrong of foreign automakers that had come to the South.

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Potter operated a die press, boxing up the parts it stamped outand pulling off the waste material. He was standing on a platformwith a mat on it when he lost his balance and fell face first.

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Instinctively, Potter put out his hands to catch his fall.

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“I didn’t even realize my hand had went under the head of themachine,” he said.

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The machine crushed his hand. There was nothing doctors could dobut amputate it.

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“It was like dust,” Potter said. “There was no fixing thebone.”

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Unique Fabricating declined to comment; its insurer is payingPotter’s claim.

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Like Lewis, Potter was fitted with two prostheses — a standardone with a hook and an advanced electronic one with a movable handthat makes him look sort of like Robocop.

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While Georgia has cut benefits to less seriously disabledworkers, it has created a designation called “catastrophic” foramputees like Potter and others who suffer devastating injuries.The state ensures these workers aren’t left without any income.

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Before his injury, Potter was earning between $400 and $500 aweek — about half of what Lewis was making. He and his family livedwith his wife’s father, who was ill. They had plans to build ahouse on the property one day.

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The accident caused them to shelve those plans for now andreadjust their finances. With workers’ comp, they’re still able tocover their half of the mortgage and pay their bills. But with lessmoney coming in, Potter’s wife can’t afford to miss a day at herconvenience store job. And they can’t go on family outings to thezoo or amusement park anymore.

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“It might just be $60 to $80,” Potter said. “But that’s a bigthing for someone who’s low-income already. I’m not rich, but Idon’t feel like I’m poor.”

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After hearing what Lewis received in Alabama, Potter said, “I’mthankful for what I’ve got now.

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“I mean, he lost a part of his life for a company, and they’renot even going to make it where he can live maybe not comfortably,but decent,” he said. “To me, that’s complete and totalgarbage.”

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This story was co-produced with NPR.


Michael Grabell

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Michael Grabell covers economic and labor issues forProPublica and has previously reported on temp agencies, thestimulus, and the TSA.

Howard Berkes

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPRInvestigations Unit who has reported on coal mine and workplacesafety.

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