The Importance of Workers’ Compensation Part 1

by Dr. Arcelita Imasa

Can you please explain about Workers’ Compensation claims for work injuries?
– Reader

Dear Reader,

There were 5,486 workers in the U.S. who died in 2022 from job-related accidents. That meant a worker died every 96 minutes. In 2020, 340 workers in the U.S. died each day from hazardous work conditions. An estimated 120,000 workers died that year from occupational diseases.

In Hawai’i, there were 2,800 injury and illness cases were reported in 2022 for state and county workers; private sector employers reported 10,500 work injuries and 1,700 work-related illnesses in 2022 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job—the Toll of Neglect, 2022).

But what happens to injured workers when injured and disabled from working and do not paid?

Most Hawaii workers know little about Hawaii’s Workers’ Compensation Law, Chapter 386, Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS).

The purpose of the law is to provide immediate, humanitarian relief to the victim of a work injury or illness. The Hawaii law was enacted in 1915 and has been amended several times since. There is no federal law mandating compensation for workers’ injuries. Only state law affords any compensation opportunity.

Before the law was passed, an injured worker could only seek compensation for a work injury or illness by going to court to sue an employer.

This also meant one needed to hire and pay for a lawyer. This was expensive and time-consuming, and most workers lacked the resources to retain an attorney or pay court fees.

And the employer usually had the advantage of having more money, legal help, and influence. To discredit a claim, an employer needed only to show the worker’s negligence contributed to the injury, or show that the worker knew the job was risky and had assumed the risk when hired.

A third defense was to show that a fellow worker caused the injury. State workers’ compensation laws, pushed by labor unions, eliminated many of these employer defenses and made the humane treatment of injured workers the priority.

The employer may still seek to show that the injury or illness is not related to the employee’s work.

Since states had different laws and sympathetic juries of workers could award varying and sometimes steep payments for injuries and illnesses, employers eventually favored having a uniform system of compensation enacted which limited the amount of payments to injured workers and the length of workers’ leave.

These laws made workers’ compensation payments the exclusive remedy. Injured workers could not go to court to sue an employer unless it can be shown that the employer was grossly or criminally negligent.

One key provision of the workers’ compensation law is that the worker’s claim of injury is presumed to be true and it’s up to the employer to disprove it.

In this way, an injured worker can receive immediate, humane relief and treatment and not have to wait weeks or months for a claim to be paid and treatment provided.

This provision is called the “presumption clause,” and without it, the law would be undermined and workers harmed since claims could drag out for months or years.

There have been attempts in the past by some employers to eliminate this clause. Still, fortunately, these efforts have been defeated, thanks to the efforts of unions and advocates for injured workers.

Enforcement of job safety and health has often been lax, and there are not enough inspections of job sites and sufficient fines for employers who jeopardize workers’ safety and health.

The fine for causing a worker’s death ranges only from $10,000 to $38,000. Stronger legislation and stiffer penalties are needed to reduce injuries and deaths at work.

In the next issue’s column, we will be explaining about Workers’ Compensation. In the meantime, if you need assistance, contact your union representative or reach out to the Hawaii Workers Center phone number (503) 967-5377 or (503)WORKERS for advice.

Thank you for your question,
Hawaii Workers Center

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