An article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine 55:487-505 (2012) raises the question of why so many workers suffering from occupational illnesses and injuries receive no workers’ compensation benefits. The researchers, a law professor from Northeastern Law School in Boston, Massachusetts and a Labor and Management Studies professor from Rutgers University in New Jersey, found many obstacles standing in the way, the worst being increasingly restrictive rules in many states’ workers’ compensation programs.
A construction worker who falls at a job site and breaks his arm may obtain benefits easily. On the other hand, an employee with a legitimate work-related condition, but one that doesn’t show much “objective medical evidence,” may encounter obstacles. The path to benefits may be even rougher for the employee who develops cancer decades after the work exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, or the employee whose disability is due to stress from his job.
The authors analyzed a number of databases:
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) logs, consisting of employee reports of work-related injuries and diseases;
- Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data; and
- The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), a study conducted annually by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Of workers aged 51-61 whose disability was caused by their work, as few as one out of eight of those who should have received benefits actually received them. This is part of a pattern of decline in the benefits accruing to those who should receive them: significant underreporting of workplace injuries and illnesses, a decline in the number of claims for workers’ compensation, and a decline in the amount of benefits.
Some of the most significant categories of workers excluded by law in Massachusetts from receiving benefits are non-employees, casual employees likethose hired to do temporary work for homeowners, domestic workers, either full- or part-time, and state, county, and municipal employees, although most government entities provide coverage.
Many Massachusetts workers who are not excluded from receiving benefits do not apply for workers’ compensation benefits, even though they are eligible. This is due, in part, to a multitude of factors, including not knowing that the benefit is available to them, and not even realizing that their condition is work-related. Additional contributing factors involve the availability of short-term disability or health-care reimbursement from an alternative system, a belief that the injury is not sufficiently severe, and a fear of job loss or retaliation for filing a claim. Not being represented by a union may also play a role, as non-union workers are less likely to file a workers’ compensation claim. Other factors relate to corporate culture in general, such as being aware of the negative experience of co-workers who filed claims, a fear of stigma related to receiving benefits, pressure from co-workers not to file, and even having to be seen by a company physician for medical evaluation.
The law professor and the labor professor concluded that sick and injured workers are confronted by a complex system that is at best irrational and at worst unjust. How can more eligible injured employees receive benefits?
Possible solutions include universal coverage of work-related injury and illness, regardless of a worker’s status as an employee or non-employee, or as part of a larger or smaller workforce, and for workers to be protected from retaliation and stigma. They also propose that injured workers be relieved of the exclusive remedy limitation of the current workers’ compensation system and be permitted to pursue litigation in the most egregious situations, for instance when an injury was due to intentional conduct by the employer.
For more information about the workers’ compensation system and help navigating the process, contact a Boston workers’ compensation attorney from Pulgini & Norton to schedule a free consultation to find out more about what our lawyers can accomplish for you. Contact us by email with a brief description of your situation or reach us by phone at our Downtown Boston, Hyde Park, or Braintree, Massachusetts office locations.
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