Injured Workers in Need of a New Plan?

How Corporate Influence is Eroding Benefits for Injured Workers

First Texas. Then Oklahoma. Now, Tennessee and South Carolina are poised to become the next states that allow companies to "opt-out" of workers' compensation.

Before states began enacting workers' comp in the 1900s, people who were injured on the job usually had to pay for their own medical costs and had no way to offset their lost wages. They may have attempted to sue their employer, but the law tended to favor businesses, providing several affirmative defenses to liability actions. What's happening in some parts of the country today heralds the return of business-centric laws that disregard the impact on workers.

Texas: The Wild Frontier of Worker Protections

The independent non-profit journalism organization ProPublica has published a series of articles in its investigative project, "Insult to Injury: America's Vanishing Worker Protections." In October, it published a piece about a Texas lawyer named Bill Minick who's helping big businesses opt-out of workers' comp. Texas already has some of the most business-friendly laws in the country – it's the only state where companies aren't required to pay into workers' compensation. Some companies administer their own plans for injured workers, and others offer nothing at all, willing to gamble on the fact that they've got the resources to defend themselves in a lawsuit.

ProPublica reported that Minick and his firm have helped many large corporations dodge their responsibility to provide compensation to injured workers. McDonald's, for example, doesn't cover carpal tunnel syndrome, and Costco pays only $15,000 to workers who lose a finger – $10,000 less than Walmart pays for the same injury.

About Corporate Options

Companies that pay for worker injuries often refer to their compensation plans as an "option." Option plans are often presented as an alternative to workers' compensation that's just as effective as government-run programs. Not so, according to ProPublica.

Of 120 companies in Texas and Oklahoma that have option plans, most have lower benefits and more restrictions and lack independent oversight. These private health plans sometimes don't even cover injuries that are known to be associated with their industry, and their reports of declining job-related injuries may be inaccurate.

Tyson Foods has its own insurance adjusters for its independent workers' compensation plan, and in many states, Tyson hand-picks doctors to treat injured workers. Tyson claims that carpal tunnel syndrome in its plants declined by 40 percent from 2002 to 2013. Yet, a researcher questions whether that could be true, because injury statistics from Perdue, another major food company, show that the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel, remained relatively consistent over a roughly 10-year period.

Carpal Tunnel and Public Policy

Working in a poultry plant is a demanding job with a high risk of injury from machines, as well as repetitive or strenuous motions. In April 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about worker injuries in a Maryland poultry plant. Investigators found that of the workers they tested, 34 percent showed symptoms of carpal tunnel, and in 2014, investigators found 42 percent of workers tested at a different poultry plant showed carpal tunnel signs.

For a large corporation like Tyson, paying workers who have carpal tunnel injuries can add up. And that could be why Tyson worked tirelessly in its home state of Arkansas to change worker compensation laws.

ProPublica reported that Tyson, "[u]sing its economic leverage – combined with time-honored wining-and-dining and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting," pressured politicians in Arkansas and other states to remove or appoint worker's compensation judges and enact laws that limit workers' rights.

In 1993, Arkansas lawmakers "reformed" workers' compensation law. The reforms narrowed the list of compensable work-related injuries, increased the burden of proof for workers alleging they were injured on the job, and granted more control of workers' medical care to insurers and employers. As a result, benefits for the most severely disabled workers in the state dropped by 20 percent.

An Eye on the Future

Labor organizations and social service agencies wonder what will become of workers, if states continue to weaken workers' compensation protections. Some displaced workers may have to rely on federal government benefits exclusively, if they can't receive any help from a state-run workers' compensation program.

Some large companies that have built their fortunes largely due to their workforce seem to be willing to let those workers suffer, if it means higher profits.

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