ProPublica/NPR report compares current workers’ compensation system to Nixon-era recommendations

March 11, 2015

Workers’ compensation provides guaranteed recovery of scheduled income benefits and medical coverage to injured workers regardless of fault. In exchange, employers and insurers are afforded immunity from litigation and the threat of compensatory and punitive damages.

The American workers’ compensation system developed as a response to the dramatic increase in work-induced disability that accompanied industrial expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Workplace disasters, such as the deaths of 361 miners in a coal mining explosion in West Virginia and of 164 women in New York City in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, brought public outcry to a fever pitch by the turn of the twentieth century. By 1920, almost every state had developed its own workers’ compensation system to address workplace injuries.

The states were left largely to their own devices until the Nixon Administration, when Congress established a commission to study state workers’ compensation systems as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. After unanimously concluding that the state systems were “inadequate and inequitable,” the commission advised that Congress mandate 19 of their recommendations as minimum federal standards in the absence of appropriate state provisions. Some of these recommendations included: nearly every employer should be covered, workers should be able to pick their own doctors, employees should receive two-thirds of their wages up to at least the state’s average wage, and compensation should last as long as the person is disabled.

However, an investigation conducted by ProPublica, a non-profit news corporation that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NPR, a non-profit membership media organization, recently revealed that many states no longer comply with those recommended standards.

According to “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp,” written by Michael Grabell of ProPublica and Howard Berkes of NPR, only seven states currently follow at least 15 of the commission’s recommendations. Four states comply with less than half of them.

During the course of their investigation, ProPublica interviewed John Burton, a Republican economist and law professor who headed that commission. Burton described recent changes to workers’ compensation “unprecedented.”

“I think we’re in a pretty vicious period right now of racing to the bottom,” Burton said.

Grabell and Berkes traced these changes to a wave of cutbacks beginning in the 1990’s, which increased through the mid-2000’s before slowing during the recession. Since that time, cutbacks have picked up once more, as evidenced by the dwindling number of states compliant with the 1972 commission recommendations.

While the U.S. Labor Department used to keep track of how states complied with the presidential commission’s recommendations, the practice was discontinued due to budget cuts in 2004.

As workers’ compensation systems become increasingly restrictive, experienced workers’ compensation attorneys can serve as important resources for injured workers and their loved ones. If you have questions about obtaining workers’ compensation benefits, contact the attorneys at ReidGoodwin today.