Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger slashed the California workers’ compensation law to gain the support of employers and insurance carriers. It was nothing new for Republican politicians to attack a system, which is difficult to understand, and at the same time a system that is so important to the lives of workers, their families and friends. Workers and their unions across the country have been fighting to protect and expand their rights under state workers’ compensation laws ever since they were first enacted about 100 years ago.

Workers’ comp laws were passed to compensate financially and to “make whole” workers who became injured or ill due to the working conditions their employers did not make safe. The cost of medical payments and wage loss was supposed to serve as an incentive to employers to correct hazardous conditions and prevent future problems. The higher the cost the greater the incentive should be for employers to prevent accidents and illnesses. By agreeing to that “deal,” workers gave up their right sue their employers for negligence. Like most deals made by employers, they constantly maneuver to get out of it. Still, 100 years later, they are sharpening their knives to make these laws weaker, while at the same time preventing workers from suing their employers for negligence. Bosses want it both ways.

Shifting the cost to workers

For union workers when workplace injuries and illnesses are not paid via workers’ comp, they are paid by the worker’s negotiated health benefit package. Sounds all right, but it isn’t. With the cost of health benefits going through the roof, costly hospital and physician bills, contributes to the crisis in the benefit funds. In short, workers are paying twice. First by taking less in their take home pay to keep their benefits; and, then watching the cost of benefits skyrocket which puts more pressure on workers accepting less wages in contractual talks.

A recent study in the medical journal Milbank Quarterly (Vol. 82, No. 4, Dec. 2004) found that “most of the costs of occupational disease are not covered by workers’ compensation. Among the greatest contributors were job-related cancer, chronic respiratory disease and circulatory disease.” The costs are dramatic. “Workers’ compensation missed roughly 46,000 to 93,000 deaths and $8 billion to $23 billion in medical costs,” the study found.

A Dec. 16 Associated Press article reported that a physicians’ and attorneys’ group charged “efforts to overhaul California’s workers’ compensation system have led to widespread denials of care for employees who suffer job-related injuries.” Current medical standards and guidelines used, mandated by the 2003 legislation, are being applied in a mechanical, “cookie cutter” approach, not considering every workplace injury and illness for the special circumstances that created the problem.

The racist edge

Then there is the widely unreported “racial profiling” that takes places. A St. Louis University study found that “Black Americans who suffer work-related back injuries receive less compensation for their injuries than white people in a similar situation … money spent on medical care for Blacks was about a third [an average $4,000 less] of that spent on whites and that total disability settlements for Blacks were about half [$3,000 less] than the amounts give to whites.”

Dr. Raymond Tait, professor and director of research at the university’s department of psychiatry, reported, “Those judgments may be affected by negative stereotypes about chronic back pain.” The report, Tait said, was consistent with findings in a 2002 Institute of Medicine report that documented racial disparities in health care.

On top of that, workers in Missouri do not have their choice of physicians. The company does the selecting.

The good news is that the national AFL-CIO and every state and local affiliate is mobilizing to stop the employers’ and carriers’ drive to further destabilize workers’ comp. Please send local accounts to the PWW for publication, in order to get a national picture.