The same day that NPR and ProPublica published their investigation into the dismantling of the workers’ compensation system, OSHA released its own report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Cost of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job.” The agency writes that the failure of employers to prevent millions of work-related injuries and illnesses each year coupled with changes to workers’ compensation systems is exacerbating income inequality and pushing many workers into poverty. The report states:
For many injured workers and their families, a workplace injury creates a trap which leaves them less able to save for the future or to make the investments in skills and education that provide the opportunity for advancement. These injuries and illnesses contribute to the pressing issue of income inequality: they force working families out of the middle class and into poverty, and keep the families of lower-wage workers from entering the middle class. Work injuries hamper the ability of many working families to realize the American Dream.
The OSHA report, which includes the personal stories of injured workers, noted that even with workers’ compensation benefits, the incomes of injured workers are typically $31,000 less over 10 years than if the worker hadn’t been injured in the first place. And while workers’ compensation was designed to protect workers, OSHA reports that it’s workers and taxpayers who are shouldering the burden.
In reality, the costs of workplace injury and illness are borne primarily by injured workers, their families, and taxpayer-supported safety-net programs. State legislatures and courts have made it increasingly difficult for injured workers to receive the payments for lost wages and medical expenses that they deserve. As a result of this cost-shifting, workers’ compensation payments cover only a small fraction (about 21 percent) of lost wages and medical costs of work injuries and illnesses; workers, their families and their private health insurance pay for nearly 63 percent of these costs, with taxpayers shouldering the remaining 16 percent.
The Center for Public Integrity conducted a Q&A about the report with David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. In responding to a question about what’s driving changes to workers’ comp, Michaels replied: “This race to the bottom is being driven by employers in every state who see an opportunity to have lower costs.”
To access a full copy of the new report, visit OSHA.
In other news:
Huffington Post: McDonald’s and its industry peers in the International Franchise Association are suing Seattle to stop the city’s scheduled minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. Writer Ron Fein reports that the fast food giant isn’t just claiming that a wage increase is bad for business, but that it actually violates the U.S. Constitution, specifically the 14th amendment. Fein writes: “That amendment was passed in 1866 to ensure equal rights for the freed slaves, and it says that no state may ‘deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.’ According to the Hamburglar, treating a franchised business differently from a local business violates this Equal Protection Clause.”
The Californian: Roberto Robledo reports that California state lawmakers are considering a bill that would establish a pilot fund to provide agricultural workers with medical care for workplace-related injuries and illnesses as well as for health problems not related to work. Financing for the measure would come through funds that agricultural employers already pay toward workers’ compensation. Robledo reports that the idea of providing farmworkers with “24-hour medical service appeals to some growers.” The story quotes the bill’s sponsor, Luis Alejo Jr.: “Agriculture workers are exposed…to the elements, extreme heat and cold and they work in an industry that strains the body. Yet they don’t have access to even the most basic of healthcare services.”
Modern Healthcare: Steven Ross Johnson writes about the health care industry’s opposition to a proposed OSHA rule that would require health care employers and other industries to report cases of work-related injuries and illnesses. The occupational health data would then be available to the public online. However, some health care industry advocates say the reporting requirement could compromise patient privacy. Johnson, who noted that worker injury rates at hospitals were nearly twice the national average of private industries in 2011, talked to worker advocates who say the new rule could elevate the conversation around nurse safety: “Unfortunately, I don’t think the musculoskeletal-injury situation has captured the attention of the public, the scientists and the policymakers,” said Pamela Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association.
Washington Post: Reporter Josh Hicks writes that the Justice Department will begin notifying thousands of federal employees that they can now sue the government for late payments during the government shutdown of 2013. Specifically, eligible workers can now join an ongoing lawsuit claiming that the government owes damages in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. The article states: “Many workers took months to recover financially from the impact of the government shutdown,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, an attorney with the D.C. law firm representing the plaintiffs. “They should not be financially punished for circumstances beyond their control.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.