This year’s WCRI conference is now a week in the past. It was an informative event with session presenters waxing eloquent with their charts and graphs and the general nitty gritty of workers’ compensation. There was a touching tribute to departing Executive Director Rick Victor and an equally touching and humble valedictory by him. An uplifting moment, that.
But in the week since then nobody’s talking about the charts and graphs and uplifting moments. No, what has filled the workers’ comp blogosphere is a continuing discussion about the ProPublica/NPR series, The Demolition of Workers’ Comp, the result of a year-long investigation by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes.
On the date of publication, we wrote about the Grabell/Berkes piece, as well as another investigative report coincidentally released on the same day, this one by OSHA, entitled Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs Of Failing To Protect Workers On The Job.
Both reports were highly critical, arguing that over the last decade more than 30 states have reduced benefits to injured workers. The ProPublica/ NPR series illustrated its thesis by focusing on individual workers who had suffered horrific injuries with poverty-inducing benefits. During the WCRI conference, as well as in the intervening week, the series has been roundly damned by workers comp professionals as biased in the extreme.
While explicitly saying he was not judging The Demolition of Workers’ Comp, Dr. Victor said, “It is hard to write a balanced report based on anecdotes.” Others in the business have not been so kind.
Most of our colleagues who have commented on the series have focused on what they perceived to be wrong with it. Lost in the weeds has been what is right with it. So, let me suggest what I think are two of the serious messages we should take from The Demolition of Workers’ Comp.
First, it is indisputable that there is wide variance and, in many cases, profound inequality with respect to workers’ comp benefits provided by the states. Grabell and Berkes pound this point home with the heaviest sledgehammer they can find. Workers’ comp pros may not like that, but it doesn’t make the point any less valid. Sure, they illustrate the issue with the most glaring examples, but so what? The inequality of scheduled benefits is absolutely true. It is true as Grabell and Berkes write that “The maximum compensation for the loss of an eye is $27,280 in Alabama, but $261,525 in Pennsylvania.” It is true that “The loss of an arm…is worth up to $48,840 in Alabama, $193,950 in Ohio and $439,858 in Illinois.
It is also true that maximum total temporary disability benefits differ among the states, sometimes markedly so. For example, if a worker living in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is injured on the job, maximum TTD weekly benefits are equal to the Massachusetts state average weekly wage, which is currently $1,214.99. However, if another worker, living 3 miles to the west – in New York – suffers the same injury, his or her maximum weekly benefit is $808.65. Is that fair? Why the difference?
The answer is that, although the average weekly wages in both states are roughly equal ($2.01 separate them) and although Massachusetts’ maximum benefit is equal to the state average weekly wage ($1,214.99), in New York the maximum benefit, at $808.65, is only two-thirds of the the Empire State’s average weekly wage. So, the Massachusetts maximum benefit is 50% higher. Both workers may shop at the same Big Y supermarket, but I can guarantee the Big Y doesn’t have one price for the New Yorker and another for the Bay Stater.
To me, this glaring disparity in state benefits, especially scheduled benefits due to the loss of bodily function, cries out for profound reform. Trouble is, I don’t see any Galahad coming over the crest of the hill to right this wrong. Do you?
The second message concerns employers and it is this: Regardless of what you may think of benefits paid to injured workers, and despite the perceived high medical loss costs and physician dispensing issues we spent nearly two days last week discussing in Boston, it is true that, nationwide, workers’ comp premium rates are at a level not seen since the very early 1980s, and, in some states, the 1970s. It is true that, in terms of workers’ comp premiums, today’s employers have never had it so good.
That’s great, and I plead guilty to having worked very hard over the last 30 years helping employers make that happen. But perhaps it’s time to take some of those premium savings and invest them in better scheduled benefits in the states that lag far behind in the fairness race. Perhaps it’s time for all states to take another look at the 1972 National Commission’s recommendations and consider re-examining how they stand with respect to recommendation adoption. Finally, perhaps it’s time we workers’ comp professionals unload the gatling gun and stop shooting the messengers.