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New reports: Workers’ Comp not working for America’s ill and injured workers

At least 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses occur in the U.S. every year, and the century-old Workers’ Compensation system is intended to provide financial and medical relief to affected workers. Two recent reports – one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and one from NPR and ProPublica -- revealed how the Workers’ Comp safety net is being torn to shreds.

As originally conceived, Workers’ Comp was a tradeoff: Workers gave up their right to sue employers for on-the-job injuries. In exchange, they received certainty that employers would pay medical bills and wage support while they were injured.

Employers are still getting their end of the bargain: You can’t sue your boss for a work-related injury. But the medical benefits and wage support that workers are supposed to receive are now much harder to get – and stingier even for those who do receive them.

The OSHA report – Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job – concluded that it is taxpayers and the workers themselves who are bearing the costs of employers’ failure to pay fair compensation to injured workers:

“State legislatures and courts have made it increasing difficult for injured workers to receive the payments for lost wages and medical expenses that they deserve. As a result of this cost-shifting, workers’ compensation payments cover only a small fraction (about 21 percent) of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses; workers, their families and their private health insurance pay for nearly 63 percent of these costs, with taxpayers shouldering the remaining 16 percent.”

The OSHA report also makes clear that most ill and injured workers remain entirely uncompensated by Workers’ Comp. One cited research report found “that as many as 97 percent of workers with occupational injuries are uncompensated.” Another study, which looked at workers who suffered work-related amputations in Massachusetts, found that despite the loss of limb, “less than 50 percent of the cases received any workers’ compensation benefits.”

The blistering NPR/ProPublica series echoes many of the same themes. According to reporters Howard Berkes and Michael Grabell:

  • Over the last dozen years, 33 states have passed legislation to reduce Workers’ Comp benefits or make it more difficult for ill or injured workers to qualify. After warehouse worker Joel Ramirez’s spinal column was crushed on the job in 2009, he was able to get a home health aide through Workers’ Comp. But he lost this critical support service after new legislation to limit benefits was passed in his home state of California.
  • Benefits differ dramatically from state to state. A worker who loses a leg on the job in Pennsylvania might get as much as $389,910 in Workers’ Comp benefits. A worker with the same injury in Alabama would get a maximum of $44,000.
  • Employers are paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp insurance in a quarter-century. In the mid-nineties, for instance, employers in the state of Montana paid $6.91 in for every $100 paid in workers’ wages. In 2014, they pay less than a third of that.
  • As payments to workers have eroded, the insurance companies providing workers’ comp insurance continue to do well. The authors cite economist John Burton’s report that “nationally workers’ compensation insurance was at near-record levels of profitability in 2013.”

The reports reinforce what health and safety advocates have been saying for years. “All workers need access to Workers’ Comp,” says Mary Vogel, Executive Director of National COSH. “Employers and the insurance industry have pushed for so-called ‘reform’ that is in fact just pushing America’s ill and injured workers into abject poverty. ”

National COSH partners with the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) to provide resources and advocacy for workers with job-related injuries and illnesses. For more information, you can visit the Workers Comp Hub website and sign up for the newsletter.

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