Fifty States, Fifty Different Laws: A Peter Rousmaniere Analysis

February 1st, 2016 by Tom Lynch

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Consumer Price Index calculator, what you bought for $100 in 1973 would today cost $533.82. Despite this, during that same period wage growth for the median hourly worker grew by less that 4%. 

Moreover, as the following chart from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows, while wages flattened out after 1973, productivity continued to increase at a steady pace through 2010.

Everything seems to be going up across America except hourly compensation. That helps explain why our recent economic high hard one to the head, known as The Great Recession, has left so many families living paycheck to paycheck, one crisis away from living under a bridge. It also illuminates why the indemnity and medical benefits of workers’ compensation are critical to economic survival following a work injury.

In 2015, ProPublica and NPR published a series of exposès that showed widespread disparity in the way the various states deal with work injuries. Workers’ comp professionals didn’t like the series much, complaining en masse that it was biased, agenda-driven and just plain wrong. Silly me, I thought the series actually made some important points, especially around the level of compensation for loss of function.

Into this battle now rides Peter Rousmaniere, friend, colleague, Harvard MBA, WorkCompCentral columnist and all-around deep thinker.

Mr. Rousmaniere spent a good portion of 2015 researching the economic consequences to injured workers with respect to how the different state workers’ compensation laws deal with the early days of a work injury. He illustrates his findings in The Uncompensated Worker: The Financial Impact of Workers’ Comp on Injured Workers & Their Families, published as a workcompcentral special report.

In the Uncompensated Worker, Peter Rousmaniere creates the metaphorical Tim, a New York electrician earning the median wage for New York electricians. He then goes really deep into the take home pay hit Tim experiences following a work injury. He shows how Tim will always suffer earnings losses while injured regardless of how long he’s out of work, and he does it by considering the waiting period (the number of calendar days between the injury and when indemnity payments will begin), the “shortfall” (“The difference between a workers’ after-tax take-home pay and the amount of the replacement wages”), the “retroactive” calculation (the number of days an injured worker has to lose from work before being paid indemnity for the waiting period) and the maximum weekly benefit cap.

Here’s how Rousmaniere describes what happens to Tim if he misses three, six or ten days due to the injury:

While Tim’s 6% shortfall may not seem unreasonable, additional deductions further reduce his replacement wages. First, there’s a waiting period during which a worker receives nothing, a retroactive period (in most states) and a maximum weekly benefit cap. The amount Tim actually receives depends on the number of days he missed work. We can correlate work and calendar days for Tim by looking at a calendar and figuring his first lost work day on a Monday. If Tim misses three days of work, he receives nothing; losing six days of work yields close to one work day of replacement wages, and losing 10 work days yields five work days (seven calendar days) of replacement wages.

With that New York backdrop, Rousmaniere then shows how Tim would fare in each of the other states. But he goes even farther. Drawing from Economic Policy Institute estimates, which create basic monthly household budgets based on household size and location “to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living,” he builds an EPI-estimated monthly basic budget for Tim and his family of four. He then lays out what happens to the family economy when Tim is out of work due to injury for an extended time, say more than a month. If Tim’s spouse works part-time, the family can’t afford the basic budget in 29 states; if the spouse doesn’t work, they’re under water to the tune of $2,200 a month in every state.

This is sobering stuff. The 50-state and District of Columbia chart at the end of the report is nearly totally comprised of negative numbers.

Reading the report, I’m left with this: Assume (as most claim adjusters tell me) that well over 90% of injured workers really are injured and want to get back to work as expeditiously as possible. Should those workers suffer economic deprivation simply because they had the misfortune to be injured at work? Does society have an obligation to ensure that families, already perilously close to the edge of the financial cliff, are not booted into the abyss because of that work injury? And, finally, is it time for indemnity and medical benefit parity among the states (for example, if Tim were injured in New Jersey he’d fare considerably better than in New York)?

Peter Rousmaniere has performed a valuable service with The Uncompensated Worker. When (it should not be “if”) you read it, you’ll come away admiring the level of research and detail that went into producing it. I also hope you come away thinking their just might be a better way.


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