NPR, ProPublica call for federal oversight of Workers’ Compensation

Last fall, NPR and ProPublica did a series of articles and podcasts on the changes in Workers’ Compensation legislation in 33 states. All of them resulted in the same thesis- federal oversight of the Workers’ Compensation system is imperative after their studies had shown a pattern of harmful changes to the system in certain states. This also suggested taking another look at an idea proposed by the Nixon administration commission in 1972- establishing a set of federal minimum benefits and standards, with Congress being given the power to step in if states didn’t adhere to the rules.

This series resulted in 10 lawmakers sending a letter to the Department of Labor, which then prompted a 44 page report on Workers’ Compensation in various states. The report found that 33 states have managed to either give employers greater discretion over things involving medical coverage, made workers’ compensation qualifications just short of unobtainable, or have cut workers’ compensation benefits altogether. Some states have allowed their employers to create their own workers’ compensation policies. This means employers have control over the benefits employees receive, how long they receive them, and what injuries they can even begin to get benefits and treatment for. This means a highly unregulated system that’s basically in the benefit of the employer, not the employee. This results in injured workers in certain states having to find compensation for proper treatment elsewhere, like Medicare and Social Security Disability. There is also a strong argument that this broken system puts injured workers on a “path to poverty”, as the articles describe it. When these fall short of what workers compensation would cover, taxes essentially end up covering the difference. A study from 2007 referenced by NPR states that government programs spend roughly $30 billion yearly on work injuries not covered by workers’ compensation. In an article published by ProPublica last year, Oklahoma’s’ top court determined that companies cannot set up their own regulations for injured workers. This was after a bill for employer-regulated workers’ comp was struck down. This currently leaves Texas as the only state to not only allow employees to actually opt out of workers’ comp insurance, but also allow their employers to not purchase it for their employees altogether. As per a law established in 1913 called The Texas Option, the state “allows” their workers to find “alternative” means of coverage. The series published by ProPublica and NPR states that these same companies are covered by Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA for short. However, this bill explicitly does not cover workers’ compensation benefits.

The report prompted by NPR and ProPublica contained a large section framing this in historical context. Detailed examples of both republican and democratic administrations supporting the idea of having national benefit standards had been dated back to 1939.

For more information and links to the articles referenced, see the article below.

Lawmakers Seek Federal ‘Oversight’ Of Workers’ Comp As States Limit Benefits