Each state determines its own workers’ compensation benefits, which means workers in neighboring states can end up with dramatically different compensation for identical injuries.
by Michael Grabell, ProPublica, and Howard Berkes, NPR March 5, 2015
A t the time of their accidents. Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.
The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children’s names.
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The Demolition of Workers’ Comp
Over the past decade, states have slashed workers’ compensation benefits, denying injured workers help when they need it most and shifting the costs of workplace accidents to taxpayers.
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Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.
After that, though, their paths couldn’t have diverged more sharply: Lewis received just $45,000 in workers’ compensation for the loss of his arm. Potter was awarded benefits that could surpass $740,000 over his lifetime.
The reason: Lewis lived and worked in Alabama, which has the nation’s lowest workers’ comp benefits for amputations. Potter had the comparative good fortune of losing his arm across the border in Georgia, which is far more generous when it comes to such catastrophic injuries.
This disparity grimly illustrates the geographic lottery that governs compensation for workplace injuries in America. Congress allows each state to determine its own benefits, with no federal minimums, so workers who live across state lines from each other can experience entirely different outcomes for identical injuries.
Nearly every state has what’s known as a “schedule of benefits” that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart.
Workers are awarded a portion of their wages up to the state maximum for the specified number of weeks assigned to each body part. But depending on those numbers, the final amounts can vary widely.
The loss of an arm, for example, is worth up to $48,840 in Alabama, $193,950 in Ohio and $439,858 in Illinois. The big toe ranges from $6,090 in California to $90,401.88 in Oregon. Some states even put a value on the loss of a testicle.
While these benefit tables are just one part of a larger workers’ comp system, they provide a vivid picture of the wildly divergent, sometimes nonsensical patchwork of laws that enrages employers and employees alike.
“What’s the difference? You lose your leg, it don’t matter where you lose it,” said Eric Bennett, whose insurer says he’s only entitled to the Alabama max of $44,000 for the leg he lost at a fertilizer mill. “It should be the same. A leg is a
The calculus of such losses can be dehumanizing. One worker at a Jasper, Alabama, sawmill lost her thumb and every finger save her pinkie when her hand was dragged through the rusty gears of a scrap wood conveyor. But instead of paying the larger sum for her entire hand, the mill’s insurer has offered her only the benefits for each individual finger.
Top: Jeremy Lewis smokes a cigarette outside of his parents’ home in Albertville, Alabama, less than 50 miles from the Georgia state line. If he had been injured in Georgia he would have been entitled to far more than the $45,000 he received under Alabama’s workers’ comp system. Bottom: Josh Potter lost his arm when he fell under a machine at this auto plant in LaFayette, Ga. just 15 miles from the Alabama state line. “It was like dust,” he said of his injury. “There was no fixing the bone.” Under Georgia law, workers who lose a hand on the job receive benefits until they return to work or as long as they live. (Dustin Chambers for ProPublica)
Given their profound impact on people’s lives, how much compensation workers get for traumatic injuries seems like it would be the product of years of study, combining medical wisdom and economic analysis. But in reality, the amounts are often the result of political expediency, sometimes based on bargains struck decades ago.
Such decisions are part of a greater rollback in protections for injured workers nationwide. Over the past decade, a ProPublica and NPR investigation found, state after state has slashed workers’ comp benefits, driven by calls from employers and insurers to lower costs.
In fact, employers are now paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp than at any time since the 1970s. Nonetheless, dozens of legislatures have changed their workers’ comp laws, often citing the need to compete with neighboring states and be more attractive to business.
The changes have forced injured workers’ families and taxpayers “to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a report issued Wednesday that echoed several of ProPublica and NPR’s findings.
Alabama’s amputation benefit, long among the nation’s stingiest, sent Lewis into just the kind of downward spiral workers’ comp was intended to prevent.
“I mean, I done lost everything I owned,” said Lewis. “I lost my house, three brand new vehicles. There wasn’t no way that that amount of money was going to replace what I’d lost.”
After foreclosure, Lewis and his family moved from their three-bedroom stucco home in a new development in Albertville to a rundown singlewide trailer on the outskirts of town.
The Value of a Body Part Depends on Where You Work
Graphic by Lena Groeger and Michael Grabell. ProPublica, and Cynthia Cotts, special to ProPublica
Workers’ compensation benefits for arms, legs, or other parts of the body differ dramatically from state to state. Select a state below to see how much it pays.