A recent review conducted by ProPublic and NPR of the last decade of workers' compensation reforms presents a harsh picture for injured workers. Of course each state's workers' compensation program may be a mixed bag of positives and negatives on its own. For example, California is one of the states where benefits are continuing to increase in alignment with increases in the State Average Weekly Wage. Thus it's difficult to provide a single national assessment whether the reforms improve or degrade the nation's workers' compensation framework.
Having said that, we can take a closer look at four common reforms made in a number of states, and how employers might respond to them in order to provide a supportive environment for workers.
Address Pre-existing Health Conditions
One common reform is allowing employers and/or insurers to challenge a claim if an injury is related to, or exacerbates, a pre-existing condition. It shifts the burden of proof to the injured worker to prove that their work is the predominant cause of the injury.
The best way to protect both employers and employees from having pre-existing conditions become a point of contention is to conduct thorough combination pre-employment and post-offer employment testing.
Performing such reviews can uncover any potential pre-existing conditions and ensure that new employees are assigned roles and duties that meet their physical abilities and condition.
Fixed Time Limit to Receive Benefits
Whereas most original WC programs provided benefits until a worker was able to return, some states are now setting fixed time limits to benefits regardless the employee's state of recovery. The result is that some workers may see their WC benefits end before they can go back to work. Having a fixed timeframe during which a worker will get benefits should encourage employers to review their FCE process and return-to-work programs.
Providing personalized, accessible physical therapy can help get an employee back to work quickly. In addition, a recent WCRI study of Wisconsin's process for terminating temporary benefits found that when an injured worker had an early, clear understanding regarding benefit termination, it improved the worker's focus on recovery and getting back to work.
Finally, a comprehensive FCE review may uncover role/task alternatives an employee can perform even if not yet fully recovered from their injury.
No Compensation for Stress or Mental Injuries
In some states, compensation for a mental injury is only permitted if it can be linked to a physical injury. In other states, mental stress or injury is simply not compensable at all. As a practical matter, we all understand the toll a stressful work environment can take on employees' health and company productivity.
Prevention is the best approach. This may mean providing stress management training and/or resources to employees. It can also include making the WC claim process simpler and clearer.
Reduced Compensation for Back or Repetitive Motion Injuries
Back and repetitive motion injuries are among the most common injuries affecting employees. Here is another instance when prevention will be the first, best approach: proper, customized training in how to perform tasks and use equipment in ergonomically effective way.
When such injuries do occur, and they will, the training can result in less severe injuries. On-Site physical therapy can also help speed up rehab time so the actual impact of the reduced benefits on the worker is minimized.
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