Workers’ Compensation: An Important Trade-Off (Jason D. Mills & Associates)

Author: Kendall Woirhaye

As a worker, I know that workers’ compensation provides insurance for medical treatment and wage replacement for workers that were injured on-the-job. Workers’ compensation, at its core, is a trade-off between the employer and worker. If a worker receives workers’ compensation, the worker forgoes their right to sue their employer. This trade-off benefits both the employer and the worker. Through workers’ compensation, the employer is protected from any lawsuits filed against them by their worker and the worker is enabled to receive medical treatment and in some cases, wage replacement.

The idea of workers’ compensation originated from Otto von Bismark, a Prussian Chancellor, in the late 1800s. Soon thereafter, European nations and the United States of America began to follow von Bismark’s model. However, the U.S. did not have all 50 states implement workers’ compensation statutes until 1948. From 1902 to 1910, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, and New York attempted to implement workers’ compensation statutes but were unable to since they were found to violate due process. The aforementioned states worked tirelessly on behalf of their workers, viewing workers’ compensation as revolutionary and necessary to the advancement of society. Previously, workers were only able to receive compensation from their employers through filing a formal lawsuit. While a viable option, the employers were often protected by the defenses they could claim: the assumption of risk, contributory negligence, and the fellow-servant rule. Because of this, it was nearly impossible for the average worker to file a formal lawsuit and receive compensation from one. 

Hope for workers was renewed in May of 1911 when Wisconsin became the first state to implement a workers’ compensation statute. Wisconsin’s success influenced that of nine other states by the end of 1911. In the beginning, employers were not required to provide a workers’ compensation system for their workers. 6 years later, in 1917, New York Central Railroad Co. v White, 243 U.S. 188 (1917) held that states were entitled to require their employers to “establish a compulsory Work[er]’s Compensation System…[and] furnish satisfactory proof of financial ability to pay compensation in the future”. Following this, 42 states successfully implemented workers’ compensation systems by 1920. 

A century later, workers’ compensation remains integral to the U.S. employer/worker dynamic. While states regulate the compulsory or non-compulsory workers’ compensation laws, Texas is the only state that does not explicitly require employers to establish a workers’ compensation system. On the other hand, states like California and New York view the absence of a workers’ compensation system as a criminal offense punishable by a fine, jail time, or both. In California specifically, employers, even if they have just one worker, must show proof of a workers’ compensation system. These strict laws mandating workers’ compensation seek to protect both the employer and worker. By doing so, it makes for safer working conditions and upholds the rights and protections workers have in being able to receive workers’ compensation. 

Workers’ compensation provides benefits “including medical care, temporary disability benefits, permanent disability benefits, supplemental job displacement benefits, and a return-to-work supplement, and death benefits”. Medical care includes anything from doctor visits to prescriptions. Temporary disability benefits apply for up to 2 years following the injury and help workers receive wages they lost due to their injury. Permanent disability requires a workers’ injury to be determined permanent and stationary by a medical doctor through a medical evaluation for impairment. If a workers’ injury is determined to be permanent and stationary, the medical evaluation for impairment will result in a permanent disability value. Following that, the worker will receive wages they lost due to their injury on a set schedule lasting anywhere from 1 year up until their planned retirement. Supplemental job displacement benefits and a return-to-work supplement serve workers that have been found to have a permanent disability and because of that, their employer cannot offer work for the worker. The benefits derived from the supplemental job displacement benefits and a return-to-work supplement can be utilized for educational purposes, vocational training, job preparation services, and computer/technological equipment. In the gravest cases, death benefit payments are disbursed to the spouse, children, and/or dependents of a worker that died due to an injury on-the-job. These payments can cover anything from funeral expenses to maintaining the quality of life for the workers’ family.

Previously, I did not know how to find information or people who could help me if I were to file a workers’ compensation claim. However, in June 2020, I suffered a slip and fall injury at my place of work. Upon notifying my managers of my injury, they were able to direct me to the information and resources I needed to file a workers’ compensation claim. I was given a detailed packet of information explaining my rights, protections, and what medical treatment I was entitled to. While my injury did not necesitate me taking time off of work, I was able to utilize workers’ compensation insurance to have my injury checked out by a medical professional and receive medication to help with the pain.  

My job is a food server at a restaurant. While the health risks are minor, they are still present. As a food server, I am expected to lift 15 to 20 pounds on any given shift. Whether it is carrying food out to tables, moving chairs when setting up the restaurant, or lifting boxes to restock items, my job requires physical activity that could result in an injury. Walking around the restaurant, carrying food out to tables, and helping clean the restaurant subjects me to conditions where a slip and fall can occur. When I suffered my slip and fall at work, it was when I was carrying food to a table. Since my slip and fall, I have made sure to pay extra attention to each step I take and the condition of the floor I am walking on. 

Both the employer and worker need to be aware of their working conditions since “slip and fall accidents in the workplace injure more than 200,000 workers per year in the United States”. While the majority of fatal slip and falls occur in construction-related jobs, any worker that slips and falls is at risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Whether it is falling from a certain height, or hitting one’s head on the floor, TBIs due to slip and falls can be devastating. Because of this, employers must be proactive and diligent about implementing safeguards to protect their workers from slip and falls. Many states, including Nevada, offer whistleblower protections for workers who choose to “file complaints regarding unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation or termination from their employer”. Holding employers accountable and empowering workers to speak out against unsafe working conditions not only protects workers but benefits the employer by limiting the number of on-the-job injuries and workers’ compensation claims.

Moving forward, it is imperative that every worker knows how they can receive workers’ compensation if they suffer an on-the-job injury. Most states have a Department or Division of Industrial Relations (DIR) that provides information on the basics of workers’ compensation. The DIR has a phone number that allows workers to listen to pre-recorded information about workers’ compensation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To receive more specialized information on workers’ compensation, the DIR recommends workers to “call a local office of their state’s Division of workers’ Compensation (DWC) and speak to the Information and Assistance (I&A) Unit for help during regular business hours, or attend a free seminar for injured workers”. For workers’ compensation matters, knowledge is power. Workers must become knowledgeable about their rights and protections concerning workers’ compensation so they are empowered to advocate for themselves if they suffer an on-the-job injury.

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