In the face of consistently diminishing coverage in many states, not long ago the U.S. Department of Labor called for “exploration” of federal oversight of state workers’ compensation laws and possibly establishing federal minimum workers’ comp benefits if such erosion continues.
“Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty,” the agency said in its October, 2016 report on changes in state workers’ comp laws. It continued by saying that the changes have resulted in “the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide injured workers with adequate benefits.”
In the last 10 years, the report notes, states across the country have enacted new laws, policies and procedures which are “limiting benefits, reducing the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation benefits, and/or discouraging injured workers from applying for benefits.”
The Labor Department report came after attention was called to the issue by prominent Democratic lawmakers who urged protection of injured workers in the wake of investigative media attention on changes in workers’ comp laws in 33 states. They featured injured workers who had lost their homes, were denied surgeries, and in some cases, even denied prosthetic devices which had been recommended by their doctors. This prompted the Labor Department to note that “the current situation warrants a significant change in approach in order to address the inadequacies of the system.” Thus its call for “exploration” of federal oversight over state workers’ comp programs and establishing minimum standards of service offerings and administration.
The Labor Department suggested that Congress reestablish a 1972 Nixon administration commission that recommended minimum benefits. “In this critical area of the social safety net,” said former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at the time the report was released, “the federal government has basically abdicated any responsibility.” Without minimum federal standards for workers’ comp benefits, he continued, “workers who are hurt on the job are being put on the pathway to poverty.”
Before the report was released, employers, insurance companies and others involved in workers’ comp programs expressed deep concerns that if these trends don’t change, the federal government might intervene in some way – an unheard-of prospect in the 100+ years since workers’ comp was established.
Since this report, many congressional and healthcare leaders warn that changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and other social insurance programs by Congress and the Trump Administration will cause even more working Americans to lose healthcare benefits and further strain many states’ already overburdened workers’ comp programs.
Establishing federal minimum benefits would require an act of Congress and presidential endorsement. But it could guarantee that injured workers throughout the U.S. would not need to fear further encroachment into their workers’ comp benefits in states that have dramatically cut workers’ comp costs for employers, which is the common avenue to reduction in benefits.
“This is a system with no federal minimum standards and absolutely no federal oversight,” says Deborah Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. “Clearly, more federal oversight is necessary to assure that that this system works for those most in need of assistance.”
But considering the current congressional and presidential “deregulation frenzy,” it would not be a good idea to anticipate any movement on this vital worker issue until after the 2018 off-year elections.
If you have been injured on the job and need legal assistance, please call The Kaplan Law Firm at (516) 399-2364 or fill out our online contact form.