Sent by Bethany Johannson

When employees in good standing with their employer are injured at work, or as a result of work, funds paid into the worker’s compensation system by the employer, or paid directly from the employer as a self-insurer, will provide limited, short term financial aid.

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, the worker’s compensation system is ordinarily administered by the state. Each state may vary somewhat in benefit delivery and mandates, but worker’s compensation programs are mandatory for all businesses. For federal employees, the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act delivers workers’ compensation benefits to federal employees, including postal workers.

In Georgia, for example, the 1920 law mandating a workers’ compensation fund has since been administered by the State Board of Workers’ Compensation. Funding comes from assessments from insurance companies and self-insured employers, who commonly consider workers’ compensation funds a line item in the yearly budget and report. However, by availing himself (or herself) of the program, an employee is bound to the conditions of the law and can’t seek redress under another system (e.g., a lawsuit).

If a worker’s claim to compensation is contested, or an employer feels it is being held unjustly liable for an injury, either party may ask for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. If no agreement is reached, the Appellate Division can make a decision. Both these legal entities are able to assess and rule on both facts and legal ramifications. When an acceptable decision is finally hammered out, it has the same weight as binding arbitration.

The Georgia law applies to all employers, from public corporations and nonprofit organizations to private companies having at least three full-time or part-time employees. It does not apply to federal government workers, railroad workers, farm workers and domestic help, to name a few exceptions.

State-by-state evaluation of the workers’ compensation program shows most (but not all) following the Georgia example, except in the number of workers needed to trigger workers’ compensation mandate. Variations may also occur in the dollar amount and length of paid leave, depending on the nature of the injury and the state in which it is incurred. One thing is written in stone: an on-the-job injury will elicit a claim, and a valid claim will establish coverage.

When state laws do not prompt the employer to approve a claim asking for coverage, injured workers can invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal regulation that protects the disabled from job discrimination. This law operates under Title I of the ADA and forbids employers from refusing to hire the disabled, refusing to promote them, and refusing to give them the same wages for the same job as another employee without disabilities.

However, like most employment law, Title I contains a loophole which allows companies with 15 or fewer employees to bypass the law. In the case of employment agencies, labor organizations and labor management committees (comprised of both corporate management and union representatives), however, as few as one employee brings the Title I rule into play.

Workers who can’t work for an extended period of time, typically a year or more, will at some point apply for Social Security disability insurance. While on this disability income, medical attention will be provided through Medicare. If the injured party does not recover enough to work again, Social Security offers a safety net that includes minor dependents, called SSD (Social Security Disability).

An injured employee returning to work is entitled to ask for some consideration for his or her limiting disability, and as far as it is within their power, employers are obliged to accede. This is called reasonable accommodation. However, this does not mean that employers are required to spend vast amounts of money for specialized equipment, or overhaul the area where the disabled employee worked.

Employers can alter work schedules for a few months, or permanently, if the injured employee is stressed or exhausted by the job. Employers can also shift the employee into a less demanding or sensitive position, but not necessarily at a lower rate of pay.

In effect, the ADA directs employers to, if needed:

1.       Alter a job application process to provide alternatives to an interview (for those with hearing or speaking disabilities), written and timed test (for those with a hand injury that precludes writing), or a demonstration of particular abilities. This latter can apply even where no injury is present, as for example in an assembly line that operates with only right-handed people, and the applicant is left-handed, if he or she can prove ability to meet performance goals.

2.       Alter the work environment, or the manner in which a job is performed, so that a disabled individual can do the work.

3.       Alter the methods by which employees are given performance reviews, promotions, pay raises and bonuses, as well as job training and improvement seminars, so that the disabled employee can enjoy the same advantages as employees without a disability. 

The Workers’ Compensation program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor, provides a very succinct explanation of accommodations that a disabled employee may trigger. These are:

  • Modifying equipment, or even acquiring new equipment
  • Altering testing and training materials and policies
  • Restructuring job flow and performance metrics
  • Altering existing facilities to make them handicapped accessible
  • Altering work schedules
  • Providing readers and/or interpreters (for the blind or deaf)

Our thanks to Bethany for this excellent explanation of how workers’ compensation works for employees who have been injured on the job and are unable to work.