Workers’ compensation is a system of insurance that provides medical care and when applicable cash benefits to workers who are injured or become ill as a direct result of their job. Over the past decade, various states have been cutting back on the guarantee that if an employee is injured on the job, the employer will pay both their medical bills and pay them enough wages to allow them to pay their living expenses. Thirty three states, including New York, have passed laws that cut benefits, made it harder to get medical care or make it more difficult to qualify for workers’ comp.
The idea behind workers’ compensation (commonly called “workers’ comp”) is this: workers give up their right to sue their employers for work-related injuries (even in cases of gross negligence) and employers agree to compensate workers but at a much lower rate than if they were able to sue (and potentially bankruptcy) their employer. In the 1990s, states started to cut back on worker’s comp benefits or made it more difficult to qualify for them. It was not until the mid-2000s that the pace of cuts really picked up.
There is approximately $60 billion spent on workers’ comp every year but this figure should be higher. Employers constantly complain about the costs associated with workers’ comp, however it has been calculated that adjusted for inflation, employers are paying the lowest rates for workers’ compensation insurance than at any time in the past 25 years. No one wants to pay higher worker’s comp insurance, but the current state of worker’s compensation in the United States in quite troubling and needs to be addressed.
New York has made it more difficult to receive workers’ compensation benefits in recent years by cutting the length of time for treatment for the very common permanent partial disabilities involving the back, neck, knees and shoulders. In the past, a worker would have the right to get treatment for the rest of their life if the injury required it, but now, the law imposes guidelines that require injured workers go through additional steps in order to continue treatment. To get more treatment, a worker will have to get permission from their doctor who must file what is called a “variance.” A hearing will then be held in order to determine whether the injured worker should be granted the variance. These changes were applied retroactively to old workers’ comp cases, so no matter how long you have been receiving treatment, you will be forced to go through the new process. The intention behind these changes is to cut medical costs by making it harder to qualify.
It should be noted that the cuts to worker’s compensation have been worse in the rest of the country. The worst cuts to worker’s comp have occurred in the South. Luckily, New Yorker’s are still compensated better that the national average for all of these major types of injuries:
NY National Average
Arm: $252,299 $169,878
Leg: $232,891 $153,221
Hand: $197,311 $144,930
Foot: $165,773 $91,779
Eye: $129,384 $96,700
Employers and their insurance companies are now denying injured workers help when they need it most and they are shifting the costs of workplace accidents to taxpayers. Government programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have paid approximately $30 billion a year to fill the gap in coverage. We will keep you up to date on any changes to worker’s compensation law and how it affects New Yorkers.
For more information, as well as some heart-breaking stories about individual injured workers affected by these laws, please go to: https://www.propublica.org/article/the-demolition-of-workers-compensation and read the report entitled The Demolition of Workers’ Comp by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes.