Citing a “pattern” of state legislative acts negatively affecting workers and workers’ compensation rights, a number of Democrats in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives have asked the U.S. Department of Labor to take measures to protect workers. Ten members of Congress signed a letter to DOL Secretary Thomas Perez, noting that 33 states have reduced workers’ compensation benefits, restricted access to benefits, or given employers increased rights regarding the treatment an injured worker may obtain. The legislators also expressed their concern over another growing trend—allowing employers to opt out of state workers’ compensation programs and essentially be self-insured.
According to the signers of the letter, which included Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, many state workers’ compensation laws no longer provide necessary levels of support for injured workers. State workers’ compensation laws were monitored by the Department of Labor until 2004, when federal budget cuts made it impossible to continue the program. Currently, there is no federal enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with minimum standards established by a 1972 commission under President Richard Nixon.
The federal lawmakers say that the federal government has a stake in state workers’ compensation benefits, as workers who are wrongfully denied workers’ compensation or don’t qualify under stricter guidelines often end up receiving federal dollars to meet basic needs. Representative Bobby Scott notes that workers who can’t get workers’ compensation benefits will generally receive Social Security disability payments, Medicaid benefits or food stamps, so it’s in the best interests of the federal government to ensure that state workers’ compensation benefits remain adequate and fair.
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