Lee Carter took a bad experience with a work injury and turned it into motivation to win election to the Virginia legislature last November. But the nature of Carter’s bad experience with his work injury shows why electing true worker advocates to state legislatures may not be enough to protect injured workers.
Carter was a Virginia resident who was injured in Illinois working for a Georgia company. Carter attempted to bring his claim in Virginia but he was unable to do so because of lack of jurisdiction. Tennessee lawyer Denty Cheatham pointed out on the WILG listserv that Carter’s difficulty in bringing a claim was why national standards are needed for workers compensation.
So-called federalization is controversial in the world of workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation is a creature of state law by what amounts to a fluke of legal history. When workers compensation laws were passed in the 1910s, the Supreme Court held that regulation of workplace safety was outside of the federal government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce but was within the so-called police power of the states.
Two decades later during the New Deal era, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of interstate commerce in the 1930s which allowed Congress to enact laws impacting the workplace such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
OSHA was implemented in the 1970s as concerns about the adequacy of state-based workers compensation systems arose from organized labor and the civil rights movement. Part of the OSHA Act was a National Commission that called for minimum standards for workers compensation claims. Part of having standardized state laws would mean that state laws would be more uniform and multi-state claims would be easier to navigate for injured workers.
Our firm is part of WILG which is a national organization of workers’ compensation lawyers. Multi-state or multi-jurisdictional claims are probably one of the most discussed topic on the WILG listserv. Mainly lawyers discuss which state’s have the best laws for a particular case. In some circumstances workers can also bring claims in and collect benefits in multiple states. The current system works for knowledgeable lawyers, but it can fail injured workers who may not even be able to bring claim because of questions over jurisdiction.
Multi-state claims can also subvert democratic rule. A worker has some input over workers compensation laws in the state where he or she lives and votes through their respective state legislatures. A worker who is forced to bring a claim in another state does not have that influence unless they happen to be among the 6 percent of private sector employees represented by a union. But even then, it may be burdensome to bring a claim in another state.
But workers have a say over national laws through their Congressional representatives. Minimum standards and some uniformity in state workers’ compensation laws would give injured workers more say in the types of benefits they would receive if they were hurt out of their home state or hurt for an out of state employer. Minimum standards legislation would also draw more national attention to the short coming of various state workers’ compensation laws. Renewed pushes for federal standards for workers’ compensation happened in the early Obama administration and towards the end of the Obama administration. National standards for workers’ compensation legislation will probably have to wait for a change in the partisan makeup of the two elected branches of the federal government.