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Getting Hurt Pays Off: Workers Compensation in America

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Scrabble board with the words “Injury”, “Claim”, “Risk”, “Accident”, and “Workplace”.

Overview


Workers compensation is a contract binding employee and employer to reimburse the employee for their pain if they ever got injured, such as medical bills and time off. This granted injured workers a chance to claim benefits from an employer’s funds while others “with strong cases would choose to seek large court awards or settlements” (Fishback & Kantor, 313).

This agreement between these parties unfortunately has not been upheld. The blame for the employee’s injury would often not be projected back onto them, instead of the employers being held responsible. This website explores the historical and present day problems that have come with workers compensation, as well as a method I’ve presented to solve said issues.

Personal Interest

My mother is a (legal) immigrant from Mexico who currently works in baking factory, making packaged cookies and muffins for companies internationally. A few months ago, one of her coworkers was cleaning a cookie cutter machine when his fingers were sliced off. When he filed for a workers compensation claim, the company denied him it because he supposedly knew the dangers that came with cleaning machinery. It drove me to ask the question: if companies are legally bound to follow through on claims, why are they rejecting and denying them?

Historical Problem

One example for a call for change was theCoal Strike in 1902, which brought attention to the conditions in which miners worked. Author of “The United Mine Workers of America and the Recognition of Occupational Respiratory Diseases”, Alan Derickson, wrote about physician Dr. John O’Malley’s examination of the miners lungs: “[h]e noted that on post mortem examination, the veteran miner’s lung ‘looked like a chunk of anthracite coal’”(783). This disgusting imagery of an organ being compared to a “chunk” of black carbon, also called “Black Lung”, alerted the public about kind of maltreatment miners were receiving. Not only were they working in hazardous places, their wages were not enough to live a sustainable lifestyle: “t]he annual earnings of the mine workers are insufficient to maintain the american standard of living’”(New York Times). Miners were most like not the only marginalized labor force, but they shed light to the problem of working, getting injured, and receiving no legit compensation.

Changes were made: better working conditions, higher wages, fewer hours. Very few of the miners received compensation for toll mining took on their bodies. in order to receive compensation after a work-related incident, an employee had to prove “that the employer’s negligence was the proximate cause of the injury”(Fishback & Kantor, 308). The premise seems achievable, but more often than not the employers would put the blame back onto the employees. They would say one of three things: the staff was aware of the risk, a coworker caused their injury, or that it was their own fault they were left disabled (309). Being able to hold the bosses accountable was therefore impossible due to lack of evidence and weak counterclaims, and the employees would not receive any sort of payment for their pain. Many of the exploitative companies were not always prosecuted or charged due to their excuses, which resulted in more silence on the labor forces parts. That same kind of negligence carried into the 20th and 21st centuries. To read more about what laws were made and workers compensation advancements were made, click here.

Present Day Problem

As previously stated, the same kind of greed carried over. Almost sixty percent of the labor force back in 1997 had some sort of occupational hazard insurance, most likely to enforce legislature passed earlier. Workers compensation “calls for policymakers to explore how to prevent the costs of workplace injuries and illnesses”(Grabell). A fair system in which employee and employer do not need to go through the hassle of spending valuable time and money going through the legal system is an ideal win-win scenario. The penalties for the employer not meeting state or federal minimums are fines or very little time in prison (Grabell). Unfortunately, this “help” might not even be received in the first place. Workers who do file reports and claims for workers compensation “routinely face threats and retaliation by their employers, including the loss of their job, loss of hours, and deportation” (Workers’ Comp in the United States). The arrangement and agreement between employee and employer is not being upheld with threats to fire someone, cut hours or even use their legal status against them, for the low price of not paying for their medical bills and whatever wages they’ve lost. Workers compensation offered employees money for their physical and financial burden, instead employers are turning the cause up on its head and threatening workers.

Unreported claims or failure to compensate hurt employees brings a financial burden. Since the injured are not receiving sufficient or any payment (whether it’s a disability check or compensation chek), it causes them to reevaluate their situation: is being bedridden and poor better than being put back in a dangerous situation while earning some amount of money? Obstacles that prevent employees from being reimbursed for their pain and suffering are the employers and systems themselves. Workers compensation was supposed to serve as a bargain: the employee’s silence in exchange for money. Now, those same employees threaten their labor forces. The workers have no one by their sides; medical care is temporary solution, offering them care and rehabilitation at the employer’s expense. An expense that doesn’t come lightly. To read more about the today’s issues with workers compensation is, click here.

Solutions

Something that can be done at the federal level is instituting penalties, which could come in the form of fines, business shutdowns (while paying employees), and even jail time (for up to five years). By passing strict legislation, people would be more likely to comply to laws already in place. People driven by fear are less likely to find loopholes and are less likely to play with the law.

You do not need to be a government official to make change. If someone close to you has gotten injured at work and is not filing for a workers compensation claim, a push is always a good idea. Large groups of people putting in complaints would most likely bring upon change in company policies, decreasing the likelihood is exploitation and unnecessary greed against workers’ rights.

Summary

Workers compensation is a contract binding employee and employer to reimburse the employee for their pain if they have ever been injured. We have see it fail in the past and the present, despite the efforts put in place to uphold the agreement. Clearly, it is not working. More government intervention would help push and encourage people to follow the laws, but ultimately, this problem calls for more pushes to file claims and not be discouraged by threats.

Thank you for reading my article. Leave a comment below, all ideas and opinions are welcomed 🙂

Work cited in Website: click here

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COMMENTS: 1
  1. April 26, 2019 by Karen.Bradley

    Hi Marcela, Your Catalyst for Change project is so interesting, and carries extra power because of the way you spoke to its importance in your video, and with the story you told of one of your mother’s coworkers’ being denied a workers’ compensation claim because he was supposed to know the dangers inherent to cleaning the dangerous machines that are part of his work. Do you know if he was able to follow up and get medical care that was paid by his employer, the baking company? It’s shocking to me that this kind of bait and switch–having the legally required worker’s comp coverage, but denying it to workers who are injured at work–is still taking place in California.

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