There’s a system in place to help you—if you use it
The workers’ compensation (work comp) system in the United States was designed to solve problems for both employers and for injured workers. One big problem for employers is that replacing and retraining injured employees is expensive. It is easier to prevent injuries in the first place, or to help workers get better.
For workers, the problems include employers not taking responsibility and the financial stress of losing a regular paycheck.
Before work comp, employers were sued when employees were injured, which could cause a business to go bankrupt. The work comp system takes care of this by not allowing injured employees to sue employers, except when safety standards were not being followed (called “negligence”) or if a work comp claim is denied.
Now work comp is a “no-fault” system, so the employer must accept responsibility for injuries in the workplace, even if an employee made a mistake. The “no-fault” policy does not apply if an employee is found to injure themselves on purpose or if an employee is intoxicated.
So for more than 100 years, each state in the U.S. has had its own work comp insurance where employers pay to support this system. Federal employees (like postal workers) are covered under a similar federal work comp. An injury is work-related if it happens during doing a job, if it would not have happened otherwise, and even if it made some existing medical issue worse.
Work comp benefits
In general, the work comp. system provides four benefits. First, the system will replace an injured worker’s pay for any time out of work; these are called “indemnity” payments. The work comp. insurance also covers paying medical care for the injury, including any related issues for the rest of the worker’s life.
The benefits also include retraining the worker if they cannot return to their job, which is called “vocational rehabilitation.” Lastly, once an injury is stable or has gotten better, an employee will be paid for any ongoing limitations related to the injury, called a “permanent partial disability rating.”
People worry that this system only benefits the employer, which is not true. Work injuries can seriously affect someone’s life by changing someone’s daily routine and limiting how much someone can do both at home and at work. Some of the most important data show that the longer someone is out of work, the less likely it is that they will be able to return to work for the rest of their life.
Once an injured worker has been out of work for a year, the chance they will ever go back to work drops to less than 5%. We want to prevent that because of how much it will affect the worker and their family, and also how much it will cost our society as a whole.
Getting medical care
In Minnesota, you get to choose how you get your injury treated, meaning no one can tell you to see a certain doctor or clinic. This is not true in every state.
Also, Minnesota has laws to provide workers with an expert to help them navigate this confusing system, communicate with their job, and assist with getting back to work. These people are called “qualified rehabilitation consultants,” and by law they are neutral in the sense that they are not working for the employer.
Even though you can choose where to get medical care, I recommend choosing an occupational medicine doctor (a “work doctor”) like me to help. We understand what people are doing in different jobs and how injuries affect them, so insurers consider us experts on whether work caused an injury.
We also ensure workers are not going back to work too early and getting reinjured, while also making sure that returning to work is done safely and helps someone’s recovery. We communicate with employers and insurers while still respecting the privacy of a medical issue. In some ways, we work like primary care doctors and help to manage everything going on with a work injury, such as when one incident leads to several injuries and needs to involve several specialists.
The work comp system is not perfect, but it’s better than paying for work injuries yourself and covering all your bills while you are injured and out of work. The biggest responsibility for a worker is to make sure to tell their supervisor or job right away if an injury happens.
Injuries usually get worse and are harder to treat if you wait. The system can’t help you if you don’t use it.