Recently The Tennessean came out with a great article about workers’ compensation in Tennessee and how it can negatively affect both employers and their employees.
In general, employers in Tennessee are frustrated by high workers’ comp insurance premiums. They’re required to have the insurance, but the costs can be very high. They also feel some employees exaggerate their claims in order to get as much money as possible, which leads to a sense of distrust in the office.
Employees, on the other hand, fear suing their employers. They’re concerned about retaliation in the workplace or even being fired. They worry the claim will take months or years and empty their savings.
In 2004, Gov. Bredesen passed a workers’ comp overhaul meant to decrease insurance premiums and thus help employers. Then in 2011, state lawmakers passed a stricter definition of workplace “injury” to help lower the number of claims filed. Since 2004, injury claims have dropped by 21%; but many workers, attorneys, and labor activists say those numbers represent intimidation of workers rather than a lower amount of legitimate claims that should be filed.
Here are some of the problems with each part of this controversy:
Employers Intimidating Employees From Reporting On-the-Job Injuries
It’s illegal to fire someone over a workers’ comp claim, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. Some employers have let employees go after they report a claim, but then say the firing is not related. It’s hard to prove the firing was retaliatory, so sometimes they can get away with this illegal discrimination.
If they don’t directly fire someone, employers will sometimes lower the injured worker’s position in the office or decrease his or her pay. They will also offer incentives like bonuses or parties to celebrate certain periods without accidents. This kind of behavior raises peer pressure around the office not to report injuries when they do happen.
Lastly, employers don’t make workers aware of their rights. They tell them to cover the cost of their injuries through private insurance. Private insurance is usually unwilling to pay for on-the-job injuries because the employer is already legally required to pay through the workers’ comp system.
Laws Limiting the Rights of Injured Workers in Tennessee
The 2004 and 2011 changes to the Tennessee workers’ comp system were meant to make Tennessee an appealing state for employers. Unfortunately, employers and workers are all unhappy with the current way claims are handled.
The 2004 overhaul caps the benefits businesses are required to pay injured workers. It also limits how much attorneys can be paid and adds months and even years to each claim by requiring a mediation process.
It also doesn’t solve the problem of lowering premium rates for employers – the high costs have remained consistent over the years.
So less legitimate claims are being filed, and less money is being paid to injured workers – even and especially workers who need long-term, expensive care for their injuries. Attorneys fees are going down while the amount of work they have to do for each case goes up. Employers continue to pay extremely high rates, even when less claims are being filed. It seems the only group benefiting might be the insurance companies.
Employees Need to Know Their Rights
One of the worst problems with the current system is that the culture of fear and intimidation has limited workers from making legitimate claims. Any on-the-job accident – no matter whose fault it was – is covered by workers’ comp. That’s the whole point of workers’ comp: it’s supposed to keep everything simple for workers and their employees so that health coverage doesn’t have to become a big, dramatic mess that negatively affects the business.
In most cases, it’s illegal for an employer not to have workers’ comp insurance. It’s illegal for an employer to fire, demote, or otherwise punish you for filing a workers’ comp claim. It’s illegal for him or her to force you to find your own health coverage because your employer doesn’t want to report the injury.
Workers’ advocates are finding that part of the problem is that workers feel so intimidated they never even seek out an attorney. But while it’s important to keep your job security in mind, you also have to consider your own health and financial needs. You might be worried about retaliation at work, but when those medical bills start to roll in they’ll bring even more problems to worry about.
The best thing to do if you’ve been injured on the job is to find a good workers’ comp attorney who cares about your situation and will fight for your right to compensation and fair treatment.
The only way the system will ever get better is if people use it properly. If you’ve been injured on the job, contact us to discuss your situation today.
(Photos by Cris DeRaud)