A Santa Rosa workers’ comp lawyer explains the history of workers’ compensation

workers compensation historyThere has not always been a workers’ compensation system. Perhaps a compensation system was less necessary before factories and machines made labor more dangerous. In the nineteenth century, farmers might have been injured while using a horse-drawn plow, but tractors are now the number one cause of farm fatalities.

The Industrial Revolution contributed to the nation’s prosperity, but it also changed the way the nation works. Increasing numbers of workers took factory jobs that exposed them to industrial accidents. When accidents caused injury or disability, factory owners simply replaced injured workers with healthy ones.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published the novel The Jungle. Sinclair wrote the novel to expose the harsh conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. While the novel spurred reform of unsanitary practices in the meat-packing industry, it had a broader impact by calling attention to unsafe working environments and to the plight of workers who lost jobs, savings, and homes after suffering workplace injuries.

Employee Lawsuits Before Workers’ Compensation

Before a workers’ compensation system was established, employees could sue employers for negligence if the employer’s negligence caused their injuries. For several reasons, however, those lawsuits were usually ineffective.

First, courts in many states would not allow an employee to recover damage if the employee’s own negligence contributed to the injury. An employee whose hand was cut off by a saw that had no guard to prevent accidents might not recover compensation because the employer would blame the employee for not being more careful when using the machine.

Second, if employers could not blame the employee for the accident, they would blame another employee. For example, an employee who was injured by falling construction materials might not have been at fault, but the employer would place the blame on the employee who dropped the construction materials.

Third, many employers had their employees sign contracts that waived the right to sue the employer. As a condition of employment, workers had to assume the risk of being injured, regardless of whether the employer could have made the workplace less hazardous. A depressing number of courts were inclined to enforce those contracts.

Given all the obstacles to winning a lawsuit, employees who were injured on the job often received no compensation. If they were unable to work, even temporarily, their loss of income often caused them to lose their homes. Many employees were reduced to poverty after suffering workplace injuries.

The Rise of Workers’ Compensation

State legislatures eventually recognized that the customary “fault based” system of recovering compensation did not serve employees well. Proving fault is difficult and time-consuming. Even when an employee won a lawsuit, the employee would often spend years struggling with no income before a court ruled in the employee’s favor. Too often, courts ruled against the employee, forcing injured workers to seek help from public assistance programs or charitable organizations.

Several state legislatures debated laws that would create systems for compensating workers that were not based on fault. Employers largely resisted those proposals because they did not want to insure themselves against employee injuries. At the same time, employers did not want to spend the money it would take to make workplaces safer.

In 1911, Wisconsin became the first state to mandate workers’ compensation coverage. The state legislature was able to bring businesses on board by executing a compromise that has become known as the compensation bargain. Employers would provide employees with certain benefits after a work injury, regardless of fault. In exchange, employees would have no right to sue the employer for other or additional compensation.

Wisconsin’s law began a trend. Over the next four decades, every state adopted workers’ compensation laws. The benefits that employers must offer have changed over the years, and the laws vary a bit from state to state, but the fundamental concept — workers should receive employer-provided benefits when they are injured at work, regardless of fault — is the same in most states.

History of California Workers’ Compensation

California experimented with a voluntary system of workers’ compensation in 1911, but it was an early state to join the bandwagon that Wisconsin set in motion. In 1913, California adopted the Boynton Act, making workers’ compensation mandatory.

When the legislature passed the Boynton Act, it made clear its intent to protect injured workers from becoming dependent on public assistance or charity because of a work injury. The legislature decided it would be more fair for employers to absorb the cost of workplace injuries, even if they had to raise prices or lower their profits, than to place that burden on taxpayers or on the injured workers.

The legislature also recognized that workers’ compensation benefits gives employers an incentive to make workplaces safe. If employers, rather than employees, must absorb the cost of industrial accidents, employers can save money by minimizing the risk of workplace accidents.

Workers’ compensation is so important in California that the state constitution was amended in 1918 to require the legislature to provide “a complete system of workers’ compensation.” While the insurance industry has repeatedly championed “reform” movements that are designed to increase insurance company profits, the California Constitution guarantees that workers should receive swift and efficient medical and disability benefits if they are injured on the job.

Santa Rosa Workers’ Compensation Lawyer

To know more about your right to receive workers’ compensation benefits for a work-related injury or illness, get advice from a workers’ compensation attorney. Employees in Northern California can discuss their case an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer at Santa Rosa’s Kneisler & Schondel. Call us at (707) 542-5132 or ask us a question using our online contact form.