Negotiations

Workers’ Compensation: A brief overview

05.15.2008

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May/June 2008 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

The Massachusetts Workers Compensation law provides benefits for loss of wages due to work-related injury or illness, as well as payment for hospital and medical expenses. These payments are made by the facility’s insurance carrier. State law requires that work-related injuries be reported to the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents. The law is the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries, protecting employers from employee lawsuits.

The Massachusetts Workmen’s Compensation Act was passed in 1911. Notably, those who strongly advocated its passage were not workers, but rather the business-supported groups who stood to gain lawsuit immunity from injured employees. This translates into a trade-off whereby workers forgo their right to sue the employer for work-related injuries or illnesses in exchange for a system of compensation benefits. The deal has proven to be a boondoggle for employers, the business community and attorneys, all at the expense of the workers.

It is important to remember this particular history as employers (and often all too many politicians and the media) portray Workers Compensation as some sort of undeserved benefit (or even vacation) that deceptive employees abuse. In “Workers Comp: A Massachusetts Guide” labor attorney Robert Schwartz states that, “Despite incessant complaints about the costs of workers’ compensation, no employer group has ever called for a repeal of the system.”

The law, in fact, is not a simple one to access. It is complex and may be amended from time to time, with the most recent overhaul occurring in 1991. Western MassCOSH (Western Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health is an independent coalition of labor and community organizations, and injured workers and professionals working together to combat workplace injuries and illnesses) had identified the 1991 reform a “major setback for injured workers. Supported by employers, business groups and their insurance allies, the ‘reform’ cut benefits and hurt injured workers in other ways.” Schwartz lists the 1991 reforms as a “shameful display of blaming the victim” as the state legislature:

  • Reduced the total-disability benefit rate to 60 percent of wages
  • Shortened the total-disability benefit to three years
  • Reduced the partial-disability rate by 10 percent
  • Shortened the duration of partial-disability benefits to five years
  • Eliminated payments for the first five days of disability (except for extended injuries)
  • Reduced cost-of-living benefits
  • Eliminated certain injuries from coverage

Despite the popular stereotype of the purportedly generous benefits of the system, the reality is this—the cash benefit does not begin until the sixth day of incapacity, and is retroactive (the first 5 days are not compensated) only if the incapacity lasts 21 days or longer. Then the total disability rate is 60 percent of one’s average weekly wage up to a maximum amount of $1,043.54 (as of Oct. 1, 07-Sept. 30, ’08) which would be equal roughly to $54,264 for a 52-week period.

What is key is that when a work-related injury or illness occurs, the employee should report and document the event “as soon as practicable.” The employer then has the responsibility to notify the DIA. Often the employer will contest the worker’s comp claim and the worker will require the assistance of an attorney. Unfortunately, the worker is often treated as suspect by the employer throughout the painful process, requiring an on-going fight to get what is rightfully due the employee.

Summarizing this comprehensive law in limited space is virtually impossible; however there are several useful resources that nurses and health care professionals can access to better understand Workers’ Compensation:

  • Workers’ Comp: A Massachusetts Guide, by Robert M. Schwartz
  • Hurt on the Job: A Guide to the Massachusetts Workers Compensation System, by Western MassCOSH
  • Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Guide for Injured Workers, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Dept. of Industrial Accidents. Available on-line at www.mass.gov.
  • Employer’s Guide to the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation System, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Dept. of Industrial Accidents. Available on-line at www.mass.gov.