“Being a woman is not a pre-existing condition” – Congresswoman Lorena Gonzalez
California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez recently introduced a bill that targets gender bias in the workers’ compensation system. If successful, it could provide a model for broader national reform.
AB 305 would prohibit the system from dismissing workers’ comp claims involving conditions that predominantly affect women, such as pregnancy, breast cancer, menopause, osteoporosis or the various psychiatric and mental health disabilities related to those conditions.
Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, argues that loopholes in our workers compensation system have cheated female workers by citing so-called “pre-existing conditions” that are exclusively or predominantly related to women’s health issues. As a result, women in the workplace receive less compensation for the same injury than their male counterparts.
“Being a woman should never be a pre-existing condition, especially in the workplace,” Gonzalez explained during a news conference in San Francisco, where she was supported by a team of workers compensation attorneys and labor leaders. “Federal law doesn’t allow gender bias in healthcare premiums, so why should we allow our state to treat women unequally when we are injured at work?” Gonzalez said at the news conference. “It’s time our workers’ compensation system in California reflect our values as a state when it comes to gender equity in the workplace.”
Gonzalez is a former labor leader, who currently serves as chair of the California Assembly’s Committee on Women in the Workplace.
Christel Schoenfelder, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus of Attorneys Association, echoed the lawmaker’s comments, noting that “the Affordable Care Act eliminated gender as a pre-existing condition. It’s time to do the same in California’s workers’ compensation statutes.” Further comments in her news release noted that “Insurers penalize women for being women. The disability ratings have gender bias built in. For example, a police officer with double breast mastectomy gets a 0% disability rating. Yet, removal of the male prostate due to cancer has a 16% disability rating. We are calling for equal treatment for women.”
The conference featured testimonies from workers whose benefits had been reduced or denied because they are women. A female police officer recently diagnosed with breast cancer shared her experience of filing a claim linking her disease to the hazardous chemicals she’s been exposed to over her 15 years on the police force. Though she had to have both breasts removed, she explained that her compensation amounted to a mere $7,000, a figure far too low given the permanent nature of her disability.
“I carried the same weight on my duty belt as my male colleagues; confronted the same dangers; worked just as hard; and it is not fair for me and my fellow female officers to be penalized for our gender,” she said.
The Workers’ Compensation Action Network, a group backed by the business community that lobbies to reduce the costs of job-related injury benefits incurred by employers, expressed “significant concerns” about Gonzalez’ bill. According to the Network’s spokesman, Jerry Azevedo, the apportionment, or the method used to determine an employer’s share of compensation for an injury, is under attack.
“The fact is plaintiffs lawyers have sought to roll back California’s apportionment statute for a decade because they see it as a roadblock to their historical efforts to expand workers’ compensation benefits beyond work-related disabilities,” the group said in a statement. “Today, they would have state lawmakers radically alter apportionment policy with a few anecdotes – some of which have nothing to do with apportionment – and claims of gender equity.”