Current Efforts To Change Alabama's Workers' Compensation Laws Would Severely Harm the Families of Disabled Workers
It has been over 25 years since the Alabama Legislature last increased the maximum weekly benefit payable under Alabama's Workers' Compensation Act to a worker with a partial disability. At that time, the weekly maximum allowed an injured worker's family to survive slightly above the poverty level. Fast forward 25 years and the same maximum payment places a family of four at only 50% of the Federal poverty level. Times have changed but the law has not kept pace. That's a shameful way to treat families trying to survive a disabling injury. My article, The Alabama Legislature Needs to Address Permanent Partial Disability Benefits in a Fair and Just Manner, addresses the history of Alabama's arbitrary limit on partial disability benefits.
Now, a State Senator has proposed increasing the maximum benefit by only $20 a week. That's still shameful. Before you say that any increase is a positive step toward the minimum poverty level, it's important to know what the same bill before our legislature seeks to take from injured workers in return for this minimal increase.
In return for this small increase, the same bill seeks to:
- Impose a cut off date on medical benefits that could deny treatment for valid work-related injuries; and,
- Cut off benefits for total disability at age 65. Partially disabled workers only receive benefits for a maximum of 300 weeks as they are expected to return to some employment. However, totally disabled workers are unable to work in any gainful employment at all and receive necessary benefits as long as they are totally disabled.
These arbitrary limits would have a devastating impact for workers seeking the medical care needed to get better. Even more, they would further harm the families of those workers who are totally disabled. Families of those totally disabled already suffer the most due to work-related accidents. Why choose to stop total disability benefits at age 65? For workers my age, the full retirement age for Social Security is 67, two years beyond that date. By the time I turn 67, the social security retirement age will probably be much higher. For someone who is totally disabled, a couple years is a long time without needed benefits. Regardless, by the time the disabled worker reaches his/her mid-60s, they have often lost years of potential payments into the social security system (as well as into private pensions) that further reduce their post-retirement benefits.
When it comes to injured and disabled workers, we really only have 3 choices of action. We can:
- Do nothing. Let the injured worker and his/her family suffer to the point of complete poverty and starvation;
- Put the burden on the government. Let taxpayers shoulder the burden through programs like Medicare, Social Security benefits, etc.
- Use a system that allows employers to insure against disabling injuries by providing medical care and, at least, subsistence level benefits.
The first choice is simply unacceptable in a caring society. Additionally, the financial cost to society of options one and two is much too great. Yet, that is the exact direction proposals like the present one take us. I hope that any changes in benefits adopted by our legislature do not increase the burdens of disability upon our local communities and government to the benefit of the private insurance companies who accepted premiums for this coverage.