What You Need to Know About Workers’ Compensation

Only a little more than a century ago, an on-the-job injury in the United States could mean absolute tragedy. With no worker protections in place, if a worker was injured and couldn't perform their duties, they were simply replaced. Perhaps, if they were lucky, once they healed they could reapply and regain their position, but that was never a certainty, much less guaranteed. And if the worker had a family to support, it often meant no food on the table or a roof over their heads.

Early in the twentieth century, some progressive-thinking states began implementing what would eventually become known as worker's compensation. Worker's compensation in the United States is a system that provides insurance for workers hurt on the job. While the system is far from perfect, it compensates individuals who have been injured; depending on the circumstances, it pays for their medical bills, wages for time lost, and other benefits.

The modern system originated in Germany in 1871 with Otto Von Bismarck, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health. His implementation of a type of insurance covered specific workers, including some of those in manufacturing plants, mines and other essential but dangerous jobs, and was expanded some years later. The idea quickly gained traction in other countries.

As the idea expanded, it reached the United States, where the first federal law was passed in 1908 under President William Taft to protect federal or interstate workers. The first comprehensive state law was passed in Wisconsin in 1911, with the last state, Mississippi, implementing worker's compensation in 1948.

While the idea is similar in all laws throughout the U.S., the implementation is slightly different. There is no one uniform law. The federal government has its own law protecting its workers; guild or unions tend to have their own plans; and, most importantly, each state has its own worker's compensation statutes.

Worker's compensation in states is handled through insurance companies or self-insured businesses. If a worker is injured on the job, they file a claim and, if they qualify, receive benefits.

An example of what is often covered comes from the United States Department of Labor, in the Office of Worker's Compensation Programs (OWCP). Federal compensation covers basically four areas:

  • Wage replacement benefits – When a worker is injured, the insurance will replace a percentage of the pay that the worker is incapable of earning. Depending on the circumstances, if a worker is incapable of earning future wages, they will again be compensated.
  • Medical treatment – The insurance also covers most medical treatment, if the worker qualifies. The compensation generally pays for ongoing medical treatment as well as for the immediate injury.
  • Vocational rehabilitation –Compensation may include vocational treatment, helping to rehabilitate the worker so they can return to their previous condition or to a condition which allows them to work again.
  • Other benefits – Other benefits depend on the state or the government in charge of the company for which an employee works. Some states offer more than others.

Whether or not a worker qualifies for worker's compensation depends on the circumstances and the state. Each case is weighed individually, as is each injury. Not all claims are accepted, and there are guidelines and limitations on the compensation itself. While worker's compensation generally takes care of the obligation of an employer to the employee, it does not preclude a worker's seeking redress from other sources. For example, if a machine is defective, a worker may receive worker's compensation and may also file a civil suit against the company that made the machine. Each state has its own rules and guidelines.

One thing that is universal, though, is that an attorney is often helpful, if not necessary, to ensure that an injured worker receives all compensation to which he is entitled. Legal issues can often be complex, and an experienced attorney can help navigate the path to full and complete compensation. However, it is important to retain a lawyer from the state in which the accident occurred. If the accident and company are in Georgia, for example, it is important to hire an attorney who practices in Georgia, as that attorney will know the specific ins-and-outs of the law in that state.

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