Workers' Compensation

Social Security Bulletin, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Workers' Compensation


Workers' compensation provides cash benefits and medical care when employees suffer work-related injuries or illnesses, and survivor benefits to the dependents of workers whose deaths result from a work-related incident. In exchange for receiving benefits, workers who receive workers' compensation are generally not allowed to bring a tort suit against their employers for damages of any kind.

Workers' compensation was the first form of social insurance to develop widely in the United States. The federal government was the first to establish a workers' compensation program, covering its civilian employees with an act that was passed in 1908 to provide benefits for workers engaged in hazardous work. The remaining federal workforce was covered in 1916. Nine states enacted workers' compensation laws in 1911. By 1920, all but 7 states and the District of Columbia had workers' compensation laws.

Today each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands has its own program. The federal government covers its employees through its own program, and it also administers the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, enacted in 1927, which covers longshore and harbor workers throughout the United States.

Coal miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, or "black lung" disease, are covered by the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972, with the initial benefits enacted as part of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Under this program, monthly cash benefits are payable to miners disabled by black lung disease and to their dependents or survivors. Medical benefits are also payable on the basis of a diagnosis of pneumoconiosis.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 instituted a new program that covers employees, contractors, and sub-contractors of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for exposure to beryllium and the contraction of chronic beryllium disease. In addition, employees of private companies providing beryllium to DOE are covered. Employees' survivors also receive cash benefits.

This same act also covers employees disabled or killed by cancers that developed after beginning employment at a DOE or an atomic weapons facility, as long as the cancer was at least "as likely as not" related to this employment, subject to a number of guidelines relating to radiation exposure, type of cancer, and other relevant factors. It also provides benefits for silica-related diseases and to uranium miners and their survivors who have received lump sum payments under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and establishes an Office of Worker Advocacy in the DOE to deal with other claims of work-related occupational disease.

Coverage

In 1999, state and federal workers' compensation laws covered about 123.9 million employees. Covered payroll in 1999-that is, total wages paid to covered workers-was $4.1 trillion.

Common exemptions from coverage are domestic service, agricultural employment, small employers, and casual labor. However, 39 programs have some coverage for agricultural workers, and 25 programs have some coverage for domestic workers. Many programs exempt employees of nonprofit, charitable, or religious institutions. The coverage of state and local public employees differs widely from one state program to another.

Two other major groups outside the coverage of workers' compensation laws are railroad employees engaged in interstate commerce and seamen in the U.S. Merchant Marine. These workers have health insurance and shortterm and long-term cash benefit plans that cover disabilities whether or not the conditions are work-related. In addition, under federal laws these workers retain the right to bring tort suits against their employers for negligence in the case of work-related injuries or illness.

The programs are compulsory for most private employment, except in Texas, where it is elective. …

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