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Self-employed contractors playing 'Russian roulette' if they aren't insured for medical expenses, lost income

Chris Bjur, a handyman in Fargo, describes the problems of being self-employed after being severely injured in a fall from a roof in June when he fractured both of his legs and ankles. Scars remain after multiple surgeries to fix the breaks. Dave Wallis /Forum News Service1 / 3
Scars remain after multiple surgeries to fix the breaks in Chris Bjur's legs and ankles after the Fargo handyman was injured in a fall from a roof in June. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Chris Bjur, a handyman in Fargo, describes recovery after being severely injured in a fall from a roof in June when he fractured both of his legs and ankles. Scars remain after multiple surgeries to fix the breaks. Seated next to him is his wife Heather. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service3 / 3

MOORHEAD, Minn.—The broken bones Chris Bjur suffered from a 16-foot fall hurt the most financially.

The Moorhead handyman was painting his parents' house near Kulm, N.D., in early June, when he slipped on the steel roof and slid feet-first toward the ground. He landed with his right foot on grass and left foot on the sidewalk, and knew it was serious when he saw his mangled left leg.

Two ambulance rides and six surgeries followed during a 20-day hospitalization, and he recently began physical therapy to rebuild muscle after months of recovering at home—a drastic change of fortune for a self-employed, hard-working man who had a solid customer base and was on track for a record month of profits until his feet hit the ground.

"I never thought I was invincible, but I do this all the time, and thought, 'I'll just run up there and do this,' " he said.

Because he owned his business, lining up medical and disability coverage fell to him, but Bjur never thought he'd need to prepare for this. American Family Insurance agent DJ Colter said it's a common problem for independent contractors.

"It might be one of the most unaware needs for a self-employed small business owner, taking care of themselves," he said.

Rambo's bite

Dawn Carr can relate to the Bjurs.

The hair stylist at Fargo's Chelsa Alene Salons had recently returned home from a vacation in March when her whippet, Rambo, and Pete the Pomeranian were fighting to be next to her. As she tried to break up the dog fight, Rambo's tooth accidentally sank between Carr's right index finger and thumb.

The puncture wound turned into an abscess after a few days and required surgery and a week in the hospital.

Doctors didn't stitch up the wound so it could heal properly, so Carr couldn't work cutting hair. She was on painkillers, so she couldn't drive. She needed daily infusions of antibiotics, requiring her mother to stay with her to cook and care for her 10-year-old daughter. The stress of it all caused her to develop shingles in July, so she missed another week of work after returning to the salon in May.

"I went from scheduling appointments with clients and staying on a schedule with them to just scheduling doctor appointments," she said.

On top of utility bills and other monthly expenses, Carr had to pay for eight weeks of rent without profits at the salon because stylists rent a chair and operate as independent contractors.

Despite having a good health insurance plan, a dog bite set her back by thousands of dollars.

Carr said she now thinks of herself as a "good example" for others. She should've had an Aflac policy, she said, or some kind of supplemental insurance to cover out-of-pocket expenses. Even her young daughter learned about budgeting after the family had to get through two months with no income.

"It was a lesson for all of us," she said.

Taking a risk

Heather Bjur and her husband knew they were taking a risk.

They used to have a short-term disability policy to make up lost income after an injury or illness, but dropped that when Bjur took a job as a youth minister. They didn't get it again when he became a handyman five years ago.

"You stupidly think this isn't going to happen," she said.

They enrolled in a health sharing plan rather than a conventional insurance policy to save money. It had a lifetime cap of $125,000 per incident or illness, an amount Bjur exceeded in June with $185,000 of bills.

Even after getting accepted into MinnesotaCare to largely cover the rest of his medical bills going forward, there was nothing to replace his lost wages.

They consider themselves lucky that he somehow didn't break any bones in his feet or fracture his neck or spine, and fortunate that they got help from friends and family, including at a benefit last month.

But this accident changed their lives. Heather Bjur is also self-employed, working part-time as a marriage counselor.

"I don't have an employer paying for my health insurance either," she said. "It really makes me not want both of us to be self-employed anymore."

Bjur could be a handyman once his endurance and strength are back.

"It's coming along," he said with a chuckle when asked if life is normal again.

"I'd say we're like 60 percent right now," Heather Bjur added. "I mean, I'm really still the only functioning adult in the house."

But he might change careers instead. He's worked with insurance companies as a handyman, and said he's looking into insurance adjusting. He could also build wood signs and furniture from home, though he'd still be self-employed. There are other options he's considering.

"We're at a point where I need to figure something out," he said.

Colter said self-employed people need to get covered because they're playing "Russian roulette" if they don't.

He said too many people don't realize the risks—until they're facing piles of bills that force the self-employed to use the profits of their work to repay medical debt and other expenses.

"Why work for someone else for many years beside yourself?" he said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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