Dennis Whedbee’s crew was rushing to prepare an oil well for pumping on the Sweet Grass Woman lease site, a speck of dusty plains rich with crude in Mandaree, North Dakota. It was getting late that September afternoon in 2012. Whedbee, a 50-year-old derrickhand, was helping another worker remove a pipe fitting on top of the well when it suddenly blew.
Oil and sludge pressurized at more than 700 pounds per square inch tore into Whedbee’s body, ripping his left arm off just below the elbow. Coworkers jerry-rigged a tourniquet from a sweatshirt and a ratchet strap to stanch his bleeding and got his wife on the phone.
“Babe,’’ he said, “tell everyone I love them.”
It was exactly the sort of accident that workers’ compensation was designed for. Until recently, America’s workers could rely on a compact struck at the dawn of the Industrial Age: They would give up their right to sue. In exchange, if they were injured on the job, their employers would pay their medical bills and enough of their wages to help them get by while they recovered.
Over the past decade, state after state has been dismantling America’s workers’ comp system with disastrous consequences for many of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer serious injuries at work each year, a ProPublica and NPR investigation has found.
The cutbacks have been so drastic in some places that they virtually guarantee injured workers will plummet into poverty. Workers often battle insurance companies for years to get the surgeries, prescriptions and basic help their doctors recommend.
Two-and-a-half years after he lost his arm, Whedbee is still fighting with North Dakota’s insurance agency for the prosthesis that his doctor says would give him a semblance of his former life.
The changes, often passed under the banner of “reform,” have been pushed by big businesses and insurance companies on the false premise that costs are out of control.
In fact, employers are paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp insurance since the 1970s. And in 2013, insurers had their most profitable year in over a decade, bringing in a hefty 18 percent return.
All the while, employers have found someone else to foot the bill for workplace accidents: American taxpayers, who shell out tens of billions of dollars a year through Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid for lost wages and medical costs not covered by workers’ comp.
ProPublica analyzed reams of insurance industry data, studied arcane state laws and obtained often confidential medical and court records to provide an unprecedented look at the unwinding of workers’ comp laws across the country.
Among the findings:
- Since 2003, legislators in 33 states have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify for them. Florida has cut benefits to its most severely disabled workers by 65 percent since 1994.
- Where a worker gets hurt matters. Because each state has developed its own system, an amputated arm can literally be worth two or three times as much on one side of a state line than the other. The maximum compensation for the loss of an eye is $27,280 in Alabama, but $261,525 in Pennsylvania.
- Many states have not only shrunk the payments to injured workers, they’ve also cut them off after an arbitrary time limit — even if workers haven’t recovered. After John Coffell hurt his back at an Oklahoma tire plant last year, his wages dropped so dramatically that he and his family were evicted from their home.
- Employers and insurers increasingly control medical decisions, such as whether an injured worker needs surgery. In 37 states, workers can’t pick their own doctor or are restricted to a list provided by their employers.
- In California, insurers can now reopen old cases and deny medical care based on the opinions of doctors who never see the patient and don’t even have to be licensed in the state. Joel Ramirez, who was paralyzed in a warehouse accident, had his home health aide taken away, leaving him to sit in his own feces for up to eight hours.
The scope of the changes, and the extent to which taxpayers are paying the costs of workplace accidents, has attracted almost no national attention, in part because the federal government stopped monitoring state workers’ comp laws more than a decade ago.
The cuts have gone so deep in some states that judges who hear workers’ comp cases, top defense attorneys for companies and even the father of the modern workers’ comp system say they are inhumane.
Presented with ProPublica and NPR’s findings, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., one of the leading worker advocates in Congress, said the changes undermine the basic protections for injured workers.
The rollback “would be bad if it were happening in one state,” he said. “But the fact that a number of states have moved in this direction is disturbing and it should be unacceptable to people in both political parties.”
“They call them reforms,” Casey added. “That’s a real insult to workers.”
Read the rest of this joint reporting by Pro Publica and NPR here.