What is the Workers Compensation System?
After a work injury, everyone seems to know what’s going on – except you. Letters show up in the mail. There are forms to fill out, terms you’ve never heard of, interviews, medical appointments. It can be overwhelming, especially when you are adjusting to the realities of your injury and new financial situation.
This article is Part 2 of the series “The Injured Workers Puzzle Picture,” designed to provide insights and strategies to navigate the complexities of the California Workers’ Compensation system. This segment gives you a brief history of this complex system.
A (Very) Quick History
Societies have recognized the moral responsibility of taking care of workers injured on the job since the beginning of recorded history.
For example, 5000 years ago, The Code of Hammurabi required employers to provide minimal compensation to workers injured on the job. Ancient Roman, Arabic, Chinese, and Greek laws provided payment as well – but only for amputations.
Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the 1800’s. The explosive industrial growth spawned hazardous work environments – and workers paid the price. Congress was unsuccessful in reducing injuries and deaths with new laws.
Then, in 1911, a major – and inevitable – disaster struck. 123 women and girls and 23 men died trying to escape a fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist factory in New York. The doors of the building were locked to prevent “unauthorized breaks.” This tragedy proved to be the catalyst for significant changes in the law to improve working conditions and assist injured workers. It was in the context of this turbulent era that the Union movement grew exponentially. Movies like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” and Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” reflected the feelings of many working people.
Despite the public outcry, the harsh reality for injured workers remained legally challenging. The worker was required to sue the employer in civil court and prove the employer was at fault for the injury – not easy if the worker lifted a heavy box, or fell off a ladder. The process was expensive, and employers had a whole arsenal of defenses – like blaming the employee for the injury. Most injured workers didn’t get any compensation at all.
Time For A Change
Neither workers nor business were happy with the situation. Most injured workers couldn’t prove their case, and when they did, companies could be hit with a jury verdict that could put them out of business.
Finally, States began passing laws to create a fair balance between the two sides. In 1917 the California legislature enacted the “Workers Compensation Insurance and Safety Act.” Known as the “Grand Bargain” between workers and business, the new law created the Workers Compensation system we have today:
Injured workers don’t have to prove the employer was at fault for the injury or condition (hence a “no-fault” system). If work activities caused or contributed to an injury, the injured workers are entitled to limited benefits.
In exchange, Businesses can’t be sued by the injured worker in Superior Court, with the possibility of a judgment that could bankrupt them.
A classic “win/win” for both sides ( although business interests have successfully eroded the worker side of the “bargain” over the last century).
If you are an injured worker, welcome to the Workers Compensation system! In the next “puzzle piece” of this series, we’ll cover the different types of work injuries.
– Tom Martin