Workers’ Compensation benefits are often confusing and seemingly unfair at first glance to many of my clients. As a result, I often find myself explaining to these clients how we, as a country, got to where we are with workers’ compensation laws and why the benefits are more limited than other civil lawsuits.
In explaining work comp laws, I usually give a brief description of the work comp system that was first developed in the early 20th century and a description of the “Grand Bargain”, the premise that employers pay for some benefits of their injured employees in exchange that the employee cannot sue that employer for negligence in civil court.
I, and many scholars, could go on and on about the history of the Grand Bargain and how it was strengthened/reworked in the 1970’s. Also, scholars can (and have), go on about the recent “reform” to workers’ compensation laws that have eroded workers’ rights in domino-fashion in many states by anti-worker legislation.
Nevertheless, I think the most poignant description of why we need to protect workers, and continue to protect workers, is this quote from our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, in calling for further reform of laws that Congress passed for employers’ liability laws:
In spite of all precautions exercised by employers there are unavoidable accidents and even deaths involved in nearly every line of business connected with the mechanic arts. This inevitable sacrifice of life may be reduced to a minimum, but it can not be completely eliminated. It is a great social injustice to compel the employee, or rather the family of the killed or disabled victim, to bear the entire burden of such an inevitable sacrifice. In other words, society shirks its duty by laying the whole cost on the victim, whereas the injury comes from what may be called the legitimate risks of the trade. Compensation for accidents or deaths due in any line of industry to the actual conditions under which that industry is carried on, should be paid by that portion of the community for the benefit of which the industry is carried on–that is, by those who profit by the industry. If the entire trade risk is placed upon the employer he will promptly and properly add it to the legitimate cost of production and assess it proportionately upon the consumers of his commodity. It is therefore clear to my mind that the law should place this entire “risk of a trade” upon the employer. Neither the Federal law, nor, as far as I am informed, the State laws dealing with the question of employers’ liability are sufficiently thorogoing.
— Theodore Roosevelt: Sixth Annual Message, December 3, 1906.