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Democrats Push for Stronger Federal Protection of Workers as States Cut Injury Benefits

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Carol Houlder, a substance abuse counselor, waited a year for surgery on her injured ankle to be approved. “I was in so much pain and felt so hopeless for so long,” she said.

Last week, following investigative reports about corporate America dismantling workers compensation NPR reported that “Ten ranking Democrats on key Senate and House committees are urging the Labor Department to respond to a ‘pattern of detrimental changes in state workers’ compensation laws’ that have reduced protections and benefits for injured workers over the past decade.” The statement was addressed to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and directly referenced the ProPublica investigation, which showed that 33 states :have cut workers’ comp benefits, made it more difficult to qualify or given employers more control over medical care decisions.” It also referenced reports that became public last week highlighting the major shortcomings and gaps in coverage resulting from the “Opt Out” movement in Texas and Oklahoma.

The letter received an endorsement and signature from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who is a long standing member of the Senate Budget Committee, as well as Washington Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member of the Senate Labor Committee. Other signatories included Bobby Scott, D-Virginia (ranking member of the House Workforce Committee) and seven other senior Democrats on House and Senate Budget, Finance, Employment, Workforce, Ways and Means, and Social Security Committees. Their letter states that “State workers’ compensation laws are no longer providing adequate levels of support and compensation for workers injured on the job,” and “The race to the bottom now appears to be nearly bottomless.”

Anyone who has been following the decline of workers compensation – whether from a legal, business, human rights or workers perspective – will not find these developments surprising. Many have speculated about the possibility of federal intervention in workers’ compensation. This recent letter does not suggest that such a move is likely to happen immediately, but rumblings of reform have grown more pronounced as a result of these investigations and public response. The reality of the Feds moving forward to regulate or standardize worker’s compensation seems more likely.

The ranking Senators want to report on what additional authority may be required (in short, legislation) to ensure that injured workers do not suffer when employers duck out of workers’ comp completely, or when individual states rewrite their own workers’ compensation laws.

Congressman Robert Scott was quoted as follows: “Well, what happens is if the workers aren’t getting benefits under workers’ comp, a lot of them end up getting benefits under Social Security disability or Medicaid, food stamps, because they’re not working. And so there is a strong federal interest in making sure that the workers’ comp programs pay appropriate benefits.”

Of course the roles of the Labor Department and Congress remains an open question. But as Congressman Scott noted, cuts in workers’ comp benefits send injured workers to the Social Security disability program (which is expected to run short on funds in the coming year). So there’s a growing argument for a federal role. Meanwhile, the Labor Department, shares the concerns expressed by these members of Congress, but has not indicated any specific commitment to particular action except to review the letter and to engage stakeholders.

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