Does workers’ comp fulfill its obligation to injured workers?

That’s the title of a report released this week by the Labor Department. It came in response ProPublica’s and National Public Radio’s investigative series, which began in March 2015, called “Insult to Injury.” The series had many revelations and interesting features. My favorite was an interactive graphic where you can see how much a body part is worth (if you lose it because of a workplace hazard) depending on the state you live. I've used it with my students.

The stories by ProPublica and NPR compelled eight Democratic Members of Congress, including Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), to write to Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Their October 2015 letter described the workers' compensation system in the U.S. as a “race to the bottom.” They wrote:

“we would welcome a report from the Department on how it will reinstitute oversight of state workers' compensation program, what areas it intends to address, and whether added authorities are needed to better ensure that the interests of injured workers and taxpayers are protected.”

That's the report which was issued this week. It describes the ways in which financial protections and medical care for injured workers have been undercut over the last 25 years. None of these ways will be unfamiliar to those who have followed the demise of the state-based workers' compensation system. The factors include:

  • Exclusionary standards that result in increased denial of claims
  • Procedural and evidentiary rules that create barriers for injured workers who file claims
  • Restrictions on types and duration of medical care for injured workers
  • Elimination of special funds to cover injured workers, such as situations when an employer failed to purchase workers' comp insurance

The report also emphasizes the need to integrate work-related injury and illness PREVENTION with the workers' compensation system.

The take way message from the Labor Department's report is this:

"The current situation warrants a significant change in approach and action at the national, state
and private sector level."

The recommendations offered in the report will not themselves lead to "significant change." Instead they seem to focus on gathering more details on the extent of the problem and its consequences for injured workers and taxpayers. That's a logical first step.

Responding to the report, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told NPR's Howard Berkes that he is drafting legislation to address some of the problems identified in the Labor Department's report. It will be up to the next Congress and the next Labor Secretary to use the report as a roadmap to improve workers' comp. Otherwise, it will just be another government report that collects dust.


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