In many states, like Florida, workers’ compensation advocates are fighting to prevent “reforms” of the state laws meant to protect the rights of workers that are injured while on the job. Toted as “cost-saving” strategy, and referred to as “reform efforts”, many states’ legislatures have permitted the once pro-injured-worker state workers’ compensation laws to be whittled away into a vague shadow of the protections they once were.
Workers’ compensation is a state issue, meaning that each state is responsible for managing the laws that govern workers’ compensation. One state’s workers’ compensation laws may strongly favor injured workers, while the state next door has laws that strongly favor employers and insurance companies. Which way a state’s workers’ compensation laws lean depends largely on the political climate of the state and the lobbying efforts of businesses, employers and insurance companies taking place in the state.
The Development of Workers’ Compensation
Workers’ compensation in the United States was born out of the industrialization of America in the early 1900s. In exchange for an injured worker’s right to sue his or her employer for compensation for the injury that was sustained in the course of employment, employers would provide medical benefits and lost wages to the injured worker. By the 1920s every state had its own workers’ compensation laws in place to protect wage workers.
The workers’ compensation system was reviewed and improved in the 1970s after a Congress established commission investigated how each state was handling workers’ compensation claims. The conclusion of the investigation was that state laws were inadequate and the commission recommended that Congress implement federal minimum standards for workers’ compensation if states did not take initiative and instate their own laws to comply with the commission’s recommendations. Under threat of federally mandated minimums, many states adopted new laws that better protected workers.
Some of the improvements to state workers’ compensation laws included expansion of coverage to more types of workers, benefits should be paid for the duration of the injury or disability, compensation should be at a rate of two-thirds of the worker’s normal wages, the freedom of injured workers to choose their own health care provider for the treatment of their injury, and death benefits should be paid to surviving spouses and children. Nineteen such recommendations were made.
States generally maintained these laws for about 20 years before many states began engaging in efforts to reform worker’s compensation laws, providing insurance companies with more leeway to undermined the needs of injured workers. The U.S. Department of Labor stopped monitoring whether states were in compliance in 2004, and the changes to state laws rapidly took place. To put the changes into perspective, of the 19 recommendations made by the 1972 commission, there are only seven states that still adhere to 15 or more of the recommendations, and four states comply with less than four of those recommendations.
What Do The Changes Mean For Injured Workers?
When states, like Florida, make changes to the laws related to workers’ compensation under the pretenses of “reform”, or change how claims are disputed or reviewed, or instate limits on how much compensation is paid or how long benefits are paid for, the injured workers and their families are the ones who suffer the consequences. These consequences are numerous, and include the following:
- Injured workers are saddled with more of the costs associated with their medical care and treatment for their injuries. Often times these expenses are considerably more than the average worker is able to afford.
- Injured workers have lost the ability to choose their own doctors in some states. In some states, workers must select a doctor provided by their employer, or their employer’s insurance provider. In other states, the worker is required to visit a doctor of the employer’s or insurance provider’s choosing, and that doctor might not even be in the same state as the injured worker.
- Changes to how workers raise disputes over workers’ compensation claims make it more difficult for workers to get the justice they deserve.
- In some states, time limitations for how long compensation benefits are paid have been put into place that are too short to permit the worker to make a full recovery, leaving them unable to work and without financial support for their continued medical care.
Florida Specific Statistics
Evidence of these supposed “reforms” can be seen right here at home in the Sunshine state. Consider the following:
- Workers’ compensation benefits in Florida have been reduced by 65% for those workers with the most significant disabilities since 1994.
- Benefits for permanent partial disabilities have been cut by at least 20%.
- Workers’ compensation reforms in Florida have become so significant that a circuit judge has taken a stand and made a ruling that the state’s workers’ compensation law is unconstitutional. If the ruling is upheld, injured workers could sue their employers.
Where Employers, Insurers, and Reform Supporters Stand
From the employers’, insurance providers’ and workers’ compensation reformers’ point of view, making changes to state workers’ compensation laws is about saving money. By saving money, these entities earn a higher profit margin because they are not paying out work injury claims. Employers see further benefits when insurance companies provide them with reduced insurance premiums.
Instead, injured workers receive substantially less than they deserve for their injury, and in states where benefits are only paid for a limited period of time after the injury, workers that require more care must seek benefits from other sources, such as federal programs like Social Security disability. Under reformed workers’ compensation laws, employers and insurance providers effectively pass the expenses associated with providing care and financial support to injured workers on to the American taxpayer.