Slowly, and somewhat quietly, the workers’ compensation system is being chipped away. Unless you have suffered a serious work injury, you probably don’t pay much attention to these laws. You might not even know what workers’ compensation actually is.
The workers’ compensation system was a compromise, between workers and employers, to deal with workplace injuries. Simply put, employees gave up their right to sue employers after an injury, and in turn employers agreed to support injured workers until they recovered. For both sides, fault is not a factor. An employer can’t be sued, even if they are negligent. And an employee can still get compensated, even if the injury was his or her own fault.
In theory, it’s more efficient and protects everyone from the time, expense and unpredictability of lawsuits. In some cases, it still works this way. The trend, however, has been to diminish the benefits given to workers who have been hurt on the job. Workers in some states have lost the ability to choose their own doctors for their treatment, or seen their checks for lost wages decrease, or had their cases reviewed and denied by remote doctors they’ve never seen.
These so-called “reforms” tend to be one sided. In 2011, Illinois’ workers’ compensation law was changed in several ways. Compared to most states, however, Illinois workers are somewhat lucky. Illinois has some of the more worker-friendly laws in the country. For example, injured employees here can still choose their own doctor, to a certain degree.
It’s no surprise that employers are getting a good deal as benefits are cut. Insurance companies, too. They save money with new ways to deny claims, limit medical treatment and even manage a worker’s health care. It’s also no surprise that employees aren’t getting anything in return. Your employer can commit gross negligence, be responsible for your injury, and then try to deny the surgery you need and fight you every step of the way.
What makes it worse is that employers don’t have an incentive to increase workplace safety because they are immune to lawsuits. They can also avoid having to help workers who get hurt by classifying their workers as contractors rather than employees so they don’t have to provide workers’ compensation coverage in the first place.
Recent reports on the system show that because benefits are shrinking, more injured workers and their families fall into poverty. This, in turn, forces them to rely on government assistance such as food stamps. So, taxpayers are picking up some of the tab, too.
It’s political. It’s about states attracting businesses by showing that the cost of running business in their state is low. It’s about the power of the insurance companies. Worker’s deserve better, but with no big interests on their side, they’re losing ground. And don’t tell me that unions in Illinois have a big influence anymore or the trial lawyers either. Both groups fought the so called reforms in 2011 and were completely ignored. And they are being ignored now too.
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