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A Brief History of Workers’ Compensation in the US

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Many of us have some kind of opinion about workers’ compensation practices in the US. Employees often feel it doesn’t do enough to support the needs of injured workers, while employers resent that they have to carry the additional insurance to stay in business. However, there was a time not too very long ago when no type of compensation existed for workers in America.

The Early Days

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s, and all through the 1800s workers were expected to maintain a certain level of output without much thought for their working conditions. If someone was injured, he or she often suffered under the pain of poverty without the ability to earn an income, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Some people took their employers to court, but the legal expense was high and the outcomes were typically limited.

Many attribute the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, with spurring an increased awareness of workplace hazards and leading to reform. 1911 was the first year that state workers’ compensation laws started to gain traction. Some states on the eastern seaboard had attempted to pass similar laws prior to 1911, but failed. Wisconsin was the first state to succeed, and other states started to enact their own similar laws. Mississippi was the last state to pass worker’s compensation laws in 1948.

In the early days of workers’ compensation, the laws protected injured workers by requiring employers to provide medical benefits and lost wage benefits. Accepting those benefits often precluded an employee from taking further legal action against the employer, which is often true today.

The Rise of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers

Every new law that is passed subtly or drastically changes the way lawyers approach a field. After workers’ compensation laws were passed, attorneys had to learn these new laws to protect injured workers who did not obtain the required benefits after accidents.

In the early 1900s, injustices in the system were rampant. A few key individuals in the legal and insurance fields had a meeting of minds and formed a strategy for developing the legal representation of workers throughout the country. These two individuals were Ben Marcus, in house counsel for United Automobile Workers, and Sam Horovitz, a Harvard Law School alumni.

They founded the NACA, which is today known as the American Association of Justice. This organization and organizations like it included attorneys and legal specialists who had a passion for protecting the rights of injured workers and educating other lawyers, employers, and the general public.

The Modern Workers’ Compensation System

Today, all state workers’ compensation laws are still loosely tied to international roots. The United States was not the first country to recognize the need for protection of injured workers. However, the laws do vary from state to state. Some states, like California, require employers to carry workers’ compensation for all employees, while others may only require it of employers who employ a certain number of individuals.

Of note, major changes since those early days have included the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Workers’ compensation is an evolving field, and the present and future system has its own issues to address. Low wage growth impacts the ability for workers to obtain fair compensation, and technology is slowly changing every aspect of insurance, health, and law. Workers, employers, insurance companies, and attorneys must maintain an awareness of industry activities to adequately support the people who need it most and avoid repeating a history of inadequate coverage.

If you’d like to learn more about your rights to worker’s compensation, contact the attorney team at DiMarco Araujo Montevideo today.