David vs. Goliath over Worker's Comp

By Mia Katan

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” — Emma Lazarus

Sadness needs no translation. Sofia’s (her name has been changed for privacy purposes) rapid Spanish rolled over me in waves. Beyond “Best Western” and “cleaning maid” I relied on another intern’s translation. In the cool of a church basement in East Boston, we absorbed Sofia and Isabella’s stories. They shared a common theme: each were injured at work, their employer denied the injury had occurred on the job, and lost their job.

Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health is working with injured workers. The worker center helps injured workers, who primarily hail from Boston’s thriving immigrant community, navigate the workers' compensation system. This summer, Kristen and I are working on a report about the Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation system. We're interviewing attorneys, injured workers and experts. We will explore contributing factors in delayed medical treatment and inadequate wage replacement benefits.

When an employer or insurance company contests an injured worker’s claim it triggers a long and complex process. It is illegal for an employer in Mass. to not carry workers’ compensation insurance. Employers without worker’s compensation sometimes attempt to avoid fines by dumping injured workers at the hospital and denying any responsibility or relationship. Employers with insurance try to deny responsibility to avoid increasing insurance premiums. This legal battle hurts everyone involved. Injured workers’ health deteriorates as treatment is delayed, which increases the cost to the employer, insurance company and the state. Many injured workers already face socio-economic disadvantages like language and education barriers. When you consider the financial power of employers and insurance companies it truly becomes a David vs. Goliath interaction.

Then there is this: Insurance companies hire “Independent Medical Examiners” to examine a worker and write a report. One attorney I spoke with says these reports often contain leading questions that help physicians come to the conclusion their employer is seeking. These doctors are anything but “independent” and are paid up to $1,000 an hour for an appointment usually less than fifteen minutes long. In this way, insurance companies get the medical documentation they need to contest a worker’s claim in court.

Even when a worker receives compensation, it’s not enough. In Massachusetts, a worker is entitled to up to 60 percent of their previous average weekly wage with a $1,181.28 maximum and $236.26 minimum. Many of these workers were receiving a minimum wage of $8, an already unlivable salary. Can you imagine taking care of a family on $236.26 a week, while disabled? According to a report from MIT, a living weekly wage for one adult with two children in Boston is $1,314. Therefore, injured workers receiving workers’ compensation are not only dealing with their disability but also a dramatically decreased standard of living.

The system is clearly flawed. Immigrant injured workers are fighting an uphill battle. Massachusetts must reform to protect society’s most vulnerable. Writing a report is a drop in a bucket, and I can only hope this drop joins a stream in the fight for worker’s rights. This report will inform MassCOSH on what workers’ compensation reform should look like. Just as advocacy groups, including MassCOSH, recently won the fight to raise minimum wage in MA one can hope my contribution will inform a future battle for worker’s compensation reform.