State Workers’ Comp Is Deteriorating, Says Labor Department Report

This October, the Labor Department put out a report on state-based workers’ compensation rules. The report calls for an increased federal role in workers’ comp to ensure that injured workers are provided with adequate insurance benefits to keep them afloat while they heal — the original intent of workers’ comp. “Recent years have seen significant changes to the workers’ compensation laws, procedures, and policies in numerous states, which have limited benefits, reduced the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation, and/or discouraged injured workers from applying for benefits,” the report reads, calling out denial of claims that were previously compensated and a decrease in cash benefits as examples of the weakening of workers’ comp around the country. Such changes challenge the insurance system’s effectiveness in providing a timely return of the worker to work and may diminish the ability for public health officials to understand trends in injuries in order to address ongoing hazards, through a review of workers’ claims.

For immigrant workers, the picture is even more complicated. They typically labor in jobs that regularly post the highest numbers of injuries each year, like farming, fisheries, industrial food processing, dairies, and construction. On top of that, they often have very low pay rates and job insecurity, due to the often temporary nature of their work. Consequently, their basic economic security is often in jeopardy, even without an injury at work. This critical segment of our country’s workforce — the immigrants who build the roofs over our heads, harvest the vegetables on our dinner plate, and head to work to clean our office buildings while we head to bed — is in dire need of sufficient protection considering their financial concerns and likelihood of injury. And, for some of those workers, the system doesn’t provide any protection at all.

While state-based workers’ comp laws have existed in the US since 1911, the laws when first enacted didn’t cover all workers; those employed in agriculture were mostly excluded from most workers’ comp laws, leaving them out of the insurance system entirely.

Today, 14 states require employers to provide agricultural workers the same workers’ compensation insurance as workers in other industries. (See MCN’s Pesticide Reporting and Workers’ Comp in Agriculture Map to see state-by-state requirements.) So, for farmworkers, who have been excluded by the state systems, federal involvement may be the only way to gain more inclusion. For those farmworkers who are covered, the increasingly weak and broken workers’ comp system is two steps forward and one step back.

We at Migrant Clinicians Network applaud the Labor Department’s report in calling out the weakening state workers’ compensation systems. We call on states across the US to both augment its rules to allow for farmworkers to benefit from workers’ comp, while simultaneously fortifying its safety net to assure that workers’ comp can effectively protect injured workers of any industry.