The first few moments after waking up are the most difficult for Meredith Tracy. They mark one more day without him.
Blinking to adjust her sleepy eyes, she asks herself, “How is this my life?” Next to her in bed is an empty spot where her husband of 15 years should be.
“And I beg God to bring him back,” she said during an interview in October, her voice cracking. “I do beg God every day to bring him back or to just let me dream about him or hear his voice one last time.”
Pausing to collect herself, she looked up at the ceiling as she wiped her mascara-stained tears from her cheeks. White specks from her used tissue lay scattered across her lap.
As she spoke about the year since her husband’s death, she nervously toyed with the tissue, at times crumpling it and then pulling it back apart. It’s difficult for her to say more than a few words about her husband, Russell Anthony Tracy, without weeping.
On Sept. 25, 2017, the father of her four children died on the job when he fell more than 20 feet into a manhole that state safety officials say was not properly safeguarded on a construction site near Las Vegas Boulevard South and Jonathan Drive. He was 46.
The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration found in its investigation that Russell Tracy’s employer, Olson Precast Co., had “committed a willful violation with plain indifference to employee’s safety and health,” and in March it slapped the company with $82,000 in fines, OSHA reports provided to the Las Vegas Review-Journal show.
So Meredith Tracy was stunned when her husband’s employer denied her workers’ compensation claim, forcing her to file an appeal, a process that could take years to resolve in court, according to her attorney, Tom Askeroth.
“This is one of the worst and saddest cases that I’ve seen,” the personal injury lawyer told the Review-Journal in late September, days after the first anniversary of Russell Tracy’s death. Askeroth has been litigating workers’ comp cases for about 10 years. “What they’re doing to this family is just reprehensible.”
The case, however, is anything but unique. According to Askeroth, it illustrates Nevada’s broken workers’ comp system, which often favors employers over victims, he said.
“I have had thousands of cases like hers over the years,” he said. “The insurance companies and employers have become so bold they will make up any reason to wrongfully deny a claim because they know they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Olson Precast declined to comment and denied a request for an interview. Requests for comment to the company’s attorney also were not returned.
The end game
When Russell Tracy was contracted by Olson Precast last year, the couple let out a sigh of relief. For the first time in their marriage, he had landed a long-term gig.
“Finally we could breathe, because he’d been in construction so long,” his wife said in October. “For the first time, we could breathe and not have to worry about anything, because we always had the ups and downs of construction in our marriage. So for the first time, we thought this was our end game.”
She paused for a moment.
“But it actually ended up being the end game,” she said.
It was a warm September morning the day Russell Tracy died. It was his first day on the job with his new employer.
Around 10:40 a.m., he and his partner were ready for inspection after having finished sandblasting pipes inside what is referred to in the OSHA reports as Manhole 8. Shortly after the inspection, Tracy was found dead at the bottom of the 22-foot manhole.
In the fall, he had suffered abrasions, lacerations and contusions, a cervical spine fracture and a skull fracture, according to OSHA’s investigative summary. His death was ruled an accident by the Clark County coroner’s office.
A stacked deck
Among the documents obtained by the Review-Journal were written statements from three other Olson Precast employees who were present at the job site the day of the fall, including the company’s division manager and superintendent.
Asked whether guardrails or other barriers had been in place to protect workers from falling into the hole, the company’s division manager wrote, “No, we normally do not put rails around a hole while still working.”
The company’s superintendent wrote in his statement that in place of guardrails, a dirt berm, orange cones, and a vehicle were used to protect employees from falling into the hole. But OSHA ultimately determined that “the actions taken were only to keep the general public and other workers out of the area of the hazard,” the agency wrote in its March citation and penalty notification to Olsen Precast.
OSHA also found that the company had not provided fall-protection training “to each employee who might be exposed to a fall hazard,” the notification said.
In all, the company received 14 citations from OSHA.
“This case should have never been denied,” Askeroth said of Meredith Tracy’s claim. “The law is clear that when something like this happens on the job, the surviving dependent is entitled to death benefits.”
All that Meredith Tracy can do now, Askeroth said, is “wait and see,” because in Nevada, the only recourse for injured workers and their families is to appeal the decision.
“The deck is stacked against the injured workers. Best case scenario, when a claim is denied, even when there is clearly not a reasonable basis for the denial, it takes us nine to 12 months to reverse a claim denial through the administrative appeals process,” he said.
Meanwhile, injured workers and their families are forced to make difficult decisions, including working while injured, or not working and risking losing their jobs and health insurance.
Meredith Tracy hasn’t been able to work since her husband’s death. Just two weeks before he died, she had quit her waitress job of 12 years, ready for a new start, she said.
Russell Tracy’s family has stepped in to support her and the children financially while they wait for the appeals process to play out.
“Every time that I go to court, I feel like it’s cruel what they’re doing to me,” Meredith Tracy said of Olson Precast. “And my kids see that. And it’s hard for them to see me cry and struggle with that.”
Special days without him
On Friday, just outside the cozy Tracy family home in the far northwest valley, Meredith Tracy’s children hugged her. They were quiet as they embraced, save for a few sniffles and the mother’s muffled crying. Above them, 10 white-and-silver star-shaped balloons floated up into the blue sky.
They were celebrating — as best they could — what would have been the construction worker’s 48th birthday.
Later, in their living room, decorated with family photos, 5-year-old Kannon, wearing a Raiders shirt a size too big, handed his mom a folded piece of blue construction paper.
“That’s you and that’s daddy,” Kannon said, smiling as he looked up at his mom.
The entire family was wearing Raiders gear, a new family tradition for every special day without Russell Tracy. He was a die-hard Raiders fan, the family said.
Kannon, loud and energetic, ran in circles around the living room as his mom and three siblings sat mostly in silence.
Colin, 17, who is a carbon copy of his dad, took a deep breath as he watched his youngest brother. Fiddling with his thumbs, he pulled the sleeve of his shirt over his right hand and looked away to wipe his tears.
“What is there to say?” he said, a hint of anger in his voice.
On the couch next to him, his mom and little sister sat together, also in silence. In an arm chair at the edge of the room, 14-year-old Kevin stared at the wall.
When Meredith Tracy broke down in tears, 9-year-old Callie buried her face in her mom’s arm, sniffling.
“He was a great man,” Callie said, lifting her large, thick-framed glasses off her tiny nose to wipe her tears.
Kannon, now sitting on the floor with the family dog, quickly shot up and ran to his mom. Tugging on her shirt, he whispered something in her ear.
“Kannon has something to say about dad,” Meredith Tracy said.
With a big smile on his face, he said loudly, “We love you so much.”