Would you rather have $44,000, or your leg? It’s a gruesome question, but one that can mean everything to workers who are severely injured on the job.
Workers’ compensation laws in the US require employers to purchase insurance that will cover medical bills and part of an employees’ wages if an employee is severely injured on the job. But as a recent investigation by ProPublica shows, the maximum benefits for injured workers vary widely from state to state, and often don’t come close to compensating workers for their future lost wages.
When a worker is severely injured on the job, he or she is awarded a portion of his or her wages per week, until he or she either returns to work or reaches the state maximum assigned to each body part. Each state determines its own workers’ compensation benefits, meaning the totals vary a lot from state to state. The interactive below, by Lena Groeger, Michael Grabell, and Cynthia Cotts, shows the maximum value that a worker can expect to receive, by state and body part.
Nearly every state has this "schedule of benefits" chart "that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart," Michael Grabell of ProPublica and Howard Berkes of NPR write in an accompanying article. As the interactive shows, benefits for an arm range from $48,840 in Alabama up to $859,634 for the same injury in Nevada. Many of these amounts are based not on careful research but decades-old bargains and political expediency.
The result is a deeply unfair and often inadequate system for compensating workers. For example, Grabell and Berkes profile two men, Jeremy Lewis and Josh Potter, who sustained similar on-the-job injuries. Both lost part of a left arm in a machinery accident. But Potter, who lived in Georgia, was awarded benefits that could surpass $740,000 in his lifetime. Lewis, who lived in Alabama, received just $45,000.
Alabama is among the worst states in terms of compensation, which is particularly disturbing since it has been undergoing a manufacturing boom in recent years. As Grabell and Berkes write, an Alabama legislature capped the amount of lost wages that an injured worker could receive at $220 a week in 1985, and never tied the amount to inflation.
The 1985 cap persists, meaning that an injured worker in Alabama can receive only up to $11,440 in workers’ compensation per year, below the poverty line for a single person and not even half the poverty line for a family of four. And benefits don't last long: Those who lose an arm, for example, are only paid for four years.
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