Injured on the Job? Sorry, You’re On Your Own.

I think most of us are at least dimly aware that collective bargaining rights have been steadily eroding in this country for a good while, with a special acceleration of that erosion after the Republicans landslide in state offices in 2010. And the Great Recession and its aftermath have exposed the inadequacy of our system of unemployment insurance.

But these aren’t the only negative trends affecting working people. In a new and rather startling report released today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the failure of the traditional state-based workers compensation system to cover anything like a majority of the costs of workplace injuries is laid bare. To put it simply, injured workers are bearing an ever-increasing share of the cost of dealing with such injuries, and fewer and fewer of them are covered at all.

On the first point, the report is clear:

Employers now provide only a small percentage (about 20%) of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses through workers’ compensation. This cost-shift has forced injured workers, their families and taxpayers to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions.

State “no-fault” laws and other caps on employer responsibility, compounded by escalating health care costs, have a lot to do with this problem, OSHA suggests. But difficult as the situation is for workers only partially indemnified for the costs of workplace injury, they are fortunate as compared to the contingent workers, undocumented people, and employees misclassified as “independent contractors” (particularly in the construction industry), who are outside the system entirely.

With an estimated level of nearly three million serious occupational injuries and illnesses occurring each year–and 4500 deaths–this isn’t a small problem. And it ought to provide those who assume any domestic government function is best performed at the state level with some troubling food for thought.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.