Report: For many injured employees, workers’ compensation falls short

An OSHA report shows that many workers go without compensation for eligible injuries or suffer significant income loss even after receiving benefits.

Workplace injuries and illnesses present an all-too-common risk for employees in Staten Island. In 2011, the latest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports data for New York, over 232,000 workplace injuries occurred in the state. More than 126,000 of these injuries were severe enough to require time off from work or transfers to different positions.

Workers' compensation is designed to provide benefits for medical costs, wage loss and ongoing disablement associated with these work-related injuries. Sadly, though, a new report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests that this system is not adequately meeting the needs of injured workers.

Ongoing financial burdens

The OSHA report discusses several studies that suggest workers' compensation often falls short financially. One study, which was conducted in New Mexico, found that workers lost about 15 percent of their earnings during the decade after a workplace injury. On average, this translated to $31,000 of income loss. This figure is especially alarming because it is based on workers who received wage loss benefits. Other workers may have faced even greater losses.

Workplace injuries and illnesses can also have secondary economic effects. Often, an injury victim's family members may have to give up work opportunities to act as caregivers, compounding the financial loss. A workplace injury can also cost a worker future earning opportunities. Besides affecting a person's vocational skills, an injury or illness can adversely affect a person's relations with colleagues and chances of promotion.

Troublingly, the workers who have the least financial leeway may also be most at risk for injuries. The report states that lower-wage workers often are exposed to hazardous working conditions and suffer injuries at higher rates than other workers. Similarly, temporary workers often face a combination of new conditions and inadequate training, enhancing the risk of injury.

Unaddressed injuries

Adding to these financial issues, many workers may never report their injuries and illnesses or receive appropriate compensation. The OSHA report cites the following troubling figures:

  • One study found that one in five employees in Massachusetts never received compensation for work-related amputations.
  • Another study found that one-third of California workers didn't receive compensation for the same type of injury. Additionally, one-third of California workers were never compensated for carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Several studies show that less than 40 percent of workers who are eligible for workers' compensation apply for it.
  • According to one study, as few as 3 percent of workers who suffer from occupational diseases receive compensation for those diseases.

The report explains that compensation rates for occupational diseases are so low because these diseases often are not identified as work-related. Compensation rates for work-related injuries, in contrast, may be low for various reasons. Some workers may misunderstand their rights or worry that filing a claim will impact their job security. Immigrants whose use of English is limited may also face barriers to making claims.

Unfortunately, workers who fail to seek adequate compensation may face long-term economic consequences. As the report shows, workplace injuries can be financially burdensome even when compensation is awarded. Without compensation, these injuries may prove financially catastrophic.

Seeking professional help

These findings underscore why it is important for injured workers to understand their rights and pursue all available compensation. In New York, workers must file claims within two years of the date of injury. For occupational disease claims, workers are given two years from the date they realized or should have known that the disease was work-related. To increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome, workers should consider speaking to a workers' compensation attorney well before these deadlines.

Keywords: workers' compensation, injury, benefits