Fighting Back on Workers' Comp

"Competitiveness." "Improve the business climate." For the last decade, those business mantras have echoed in state capitols across the country, as Corporate America has engineered a nationwide campaign to undermine workers' compensation systems across the country.
From California to New York, Maine to Oregon, Alaska to Texas, Big Business has succeeded in pitting states against each other in a workers' compensation race to the bottom. "Cut workers' compensation costs," say leading business executives and their allied politicians, "or business -- and jobs -- will flee our state and move to a state where workers' compensation charges are lower."
For a decade, this ploy has worked, and states have restricted access to workers' compensation (a no-fault insurance system that provides health care and benefits for workers who are injured on the job or contract job-related diseases) and cut awards.
The corporate jig may now be up. In the most important contest of the past election cycle, voters in Ohio declared they are opting out of the race to the bottom.
By a 57-to-43 percent margin, Ohio voters on November 4 defeated state Issue 2, a referendum on legislation that would have gutted the state's workers' compensation system.
The Ohio referendum has significant national implications because Issue 2 contained so many of the workers' comp restrictions which employers and insurance companies are seeking to impose throughout the country. Among the most important:

  • Excluding victims of carpal tunnel and other repetitive motion injuries -- the fastest growing workplace injury -- from the workers' compensation system. Ohio's Issue 2 would have required carpal tunnel victims to show that they would not have been injured without the job. That would have been very hard to prove, because people can get repetitive motion injuries from typing at home, bowling, sewing or many other routine activities, or even from natural deterioration of the body.

  • Sharply restricting awards of permanent and total disability. Ohio's Issue 2 would have prevented consideration of a person's education, skills or past work experience. Here is what this would have meant in practice: Imagine that a 50-year-old illiterate man who had done hard, physical labor all his life suffered a debilitating back injury and was unable to return to his job lifting boxes. Under Issue 2, he would have been denied benefits if he could hypothetically work as a bank clerk -- even though his illiteracy and work history would make it inconceivable that he ever could find such employment.

  • Cutting benefit levels for those with disabling injuries who are able to return to work. The Ohio law, like many others, would have mandated hearing officers decide a worker's degree of impairment -- a key variable in determining how much money injured workers are awarded -- through application of the American Medical Association's permanent impairment guidelines. The AMA itself has stated that this use of the guidelines -- which were written for other purposes -- is "unfair, arbitrary and unreasonable."

Other changes atop the corporate wish list for workers' comp (many of which were included in the Ohio legislation) include: restricted benefits for workers who contract occupational diseases, forcing injured workers into managed care systems, placing time limits on how long injured workers can receive temporary disability, restricting injured workers' access to lawyers and underfunding rehabilitation programs.
Ohio voters took a hard look at the business agenda for workers' compensation and decisively rejected it -- even though big corporations poured something approaching $10 million into the "yes" campaign (official numbers will not be available until a December disclosure deadline), at least three times as much as opponents contributed to the "no" side. By mid-October, GM, Ford, Chrysler and Honda had together donated approximately a million dollars to the campaign.
Ohio voters responded not to the barrage of TV ads paid for by the corporate donations encouraging a "yes" vote, but to a grassroots campaign led by labor unions, workers' compensation lawyers and environmental, consumer and other citizen groups.
With Ohio now in the lead, the tide may be turning on workers' compensation. The era of scapegoating injured workers and cutting benefits may be winding down, to be replaced by a new focus on alleviating the continuing tragedy of tens of thousands of annual avoidable workplace deaths and injuries.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor.