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Workers' compensation laws under threat in many states: Part II

Last week, we began a conversation about a troubling trend seen in parts of the United States. Although workers' rights activists have fought to implement and maintain workers' compensation programs for much of the past century, these programs are being abandoned in some states to be replaced by company-sponsored alternatives that provide far less protection and coverage.

The change has not yet come to Colorado, but the movement to "opt out" of traditional workers' compensation plans is quickly spreading around the country. It is often financially backed by large corporations eager to reduce their workers' compensation costs and liabilities.

Recently, ProPublica and National Public Radio examined the alternative plans of about 120 companies in Texas and Oklahoma - currently the only two states that allow companies to completely opt out of state-regulated workers' compensation plans. The analysis revealed that many of these programs are only beneficial for employers. Results include findings that:

  • Employers have almost complete control over both the medical and legal processes involved with reporting and compensating worker injuries
  • Employers have discretion over which doctors their workers can visit and can decide if (and how often) their workers should be re-examined
  • Employers choose when claims are settled, which means making a "take it or leave it" offer
  • Nearly all of the plans adopted by companies offer fewer benefits for injured workers
  • Nearly all plans allow employers to deny claims for ridiculous reasons like failing to report an injury by the end of the shift in which the worker became injured
  • Workers who don't accept the non-negotiable settlement offers will receive no benefits
  • Workers can appeal decisions, but the committee hearing those appeals is set up by their employers

There's no question that these alternative plans are having a positive financial effect for businesses. They have lower costs and fewer liabilities. But no reasonable person could honestly say that such alternative plans are better for injured workers than traditional workers' compensation. If anything, these changes represent a huge step backward that threatens to undo a century's worth of progress and change.

Why should you care about this problem if you live in Colorado - or any state other than the two mentioned above? In short, you should care because this movement is spreading. The right to a safe workplace and workers' compensation were hard-earned and came at a high price. Unless we continue to demand our rights in the workplace, they could easily be taken away.

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