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The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers: The Social Justice of Workers’ Compensation

by Krista DeSmyter | February 19th, 2018

Living in the Washington, D.C., area, one of the first questions a new acquaintance will ask is, “What do you do?” When I respond that I practice workers’ compensation law, a common follow-up question in the midst of our conversation may be, “Have you ever met someone who faked an injury to get compensation benefits?” Here is where I cringe. What may seem like a harmless, conversation-starting question makes me cringe because in my years of practice, I have never met an injured worker who would do that. I have never met a worker who wanted to be in a position of uncertainty or to ask his or her employer to provide workers’ compensation benefits.

This common question I receive saddens me because it represents a societal view which is not rational but, tragically, remains prevalent and stigmatizing. My view is that protecting another’s right to work protects families and human rights. Workers’ compensation laws should be a just and effective protection of injured workers and their families. Workers’ compensation laws should be a societal good and should respect the dignity of workers. When I do receive the above question (which still makes me cringe), I embrace the opportunity to share my views of workers’ compensation coverage as a protection of human rights.

This post will identify work as a human right, recognize the historical, moral obligation of employers and insurers to care for their workers and will briefly discuss the threatening legislative erosion of workers’ compensation benefits across the United States. My hope is that the thoughts shared here can shift minds away from any false stigma associated with making a workers’ compensation claim to a view of it as a protection of the right to work—a human right.

Dignity of the Person Through Work

The right to work is a basic human right, a universal dignity that each human deserves, due to the fact that they are human. It is more than just “making a living.” Work is the daily way that we secure our present and our future as individuals. Through work, we protect and feed our families and build a future for our family units. Through work, we express who we are. Through work, we can express and live out what we value. Through work, we develop and share our talents and skills with others. Interactions in the work force allow opportunities to interact with others that we would not experience otherwise.

The people that I represent have a diverse range of physical skills, creative ideas and interpersonal talents which they express through their occupations. They have immediate needs for their growing families and dreams to build for them. Earning a fair wage for fair hours affords most the resources to engage in recreational activities that they enjoy outside of work. Considering the foregoing reality and common interests of the average worker, it would not be rational for that worker to voluntarily threaten that most basic means to provide food, shelter and security to one’s self and one’s family. One who would do so is the vast, vast exception, not the rule.

Employers Must Respect the Dignity of Workers, as Should Their Insurers

“Woe to him who treats his workers unjustly.” Jeremiah 22:13.

“Those who become rich by abusing their workers have sinned against God.” James 5:1-6.

“And O my people! Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due” (Quran 11:85).

The above scriptural quotes, while ancient and hard-hitting, apply to the present-day obligation for employers to respect the dignity of their workers. These historic texts encapsulate the compelling worth of each and every worker, a worth that should be appreciated from a secular sense as well. The right to work and the moral obligation for employers to provide decent and fair wages, to allow for organization and the joining of unions and to provide workplace safety really is a hallowed and fundamental concept. With this historical and ethical perspective, modern employment laws should be designed and applied with deference to human rights, and employers and their agents should appreciate the gravity of their responsibility.

Saint John Paul II recognized, “While work, in all its many senses, is an obligation, that is to say a duty, it is also a source of rights on the part of the worker.” (St. John Paul II, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), no. 16). He continued,

[S]ocial benefits intended to ensure the life and health of workers and their families play a part here. The expenses involved in health care, especially in the case of accidents at work, demand that medical assistance should be easily available for workers, and that as far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge. [Another social benefit] concerns the right to a pension and to insurance for old age and in case of accidents at work. Within the sphere of these principal rights, there develops a whole system of particular rights which, together with remuneration for work, determine the correct relationship between worker and employer. Among these rights there should never be overlooked the right to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity. (St. John Paul II, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), no. 19).

I utilize the above texts from major world religions merely to demonstrate the universality and seriousness of a just employee to employer relationship. The obligations that an employer holds towards its workforce are serious and support the basic human rights of each worker by protecting their safety and providing an ability to have affordable healthcare and insurance in case of injury.

The moral obligation to treat workers with dignity and respect should not cease when a worker is upon the bridge of workers’ compensation. Employers provide or purchase workers’ compensation insurance in the event of a work injury. For employers who insure themselves, the obligations to respect the dignity of the worker outlined above do not cease during the pendency of a workers’ compensation claim. It follows that the entities tasked by employers to insure them in the case of a work injury, thereby stepping into the shoes of the employer in providing wage replacement and medical benefits, should adhere to the same fundamental respect for the dignity of the worker. Too often, insurance companies, who are far removed from the value human capital, will dehumanize the worker through failing to pay wage-replacement benefits, by denying medical care recommended by physicians, by delinquency in paying medical bills to cause a disincentive for doctors to treat injured workers and through a general tenor of disrespect and cynicism towards injured workers. This insurance industry goal of discouraging injured workers at the expense of protecting margins runs afoul of the human rights of the worker.

I urge those who are employed in the workers’ compensation insurance industry, who step into the obligations of an employer in the event of a work injury, to evaluate the grave effect of their practices and habits on the precious lives of workers and their families. Human rights should supersede market-based or business interests without fail.

Laws Limiting Workers’ Compensation Benefits Threaten Human Rights

Workers’ compensation laws were founded on a societal good: to promote safe workplaces and to ensure that, in the case of a work injury, a worker received efficient, expedient medical care and wage-replacement benefits. In exchange for this right, employers received protection from civil suits brought against them by injured workers in negligence. The foundation of these laws put human rights first in protecting a worker’s ability to heal his body and protecting a workers’ right to provide for himself and his family after sacrificing his or her body for the employer’s business.

In the past couple decades, several states have amended their workers’ compensation laws to make them more favorable to industry over the individual worker victims. These changes, fueled by business-oriented interests and lobbying, interfere with the purpose of workers’ compensation laws. The reduction and limitation of benefits for injured workers, accomplished in the name of economic interests, profoundly affects families who depend on the earnings of the household. Even at their best, workers’ compensation benefits do not compensate an injured worker for the far-reaching effects that a serious injury and resulting job loss can have: loss of earning potential, depression, inability to afford childcare and strain on spousal and familial relationships. Therefore, any abridgement on benefits is a punch in the gut to the dignity of the worker. Legislatures should value workers’ compensation benefits as a protection of human rights, not a protection of uncertain economic theories based on drawing business to one’s jurisdiction.

There should not be any stigma in protecting the fundamental human right to work. Workers’ compensation laws are based on protecting the ability of workers to endure the disruption caused by the unfortunate happening of a work injury. If you or a loved one have been injured at work, I encourage you to seek an attorney who will advocate against employers and insurance companies that do not value fundamental rights. Seek an advocate who views workers’ compensation benefits as a protection of human rights and a process in which the injured worker should be treated with dignity and respect.