DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've been reporting this week on workers' compensation and how it appears to be failing some workers who thought they could rely on it. They're seeing lower than expected benefits and more barriers to getting medical care. An investigation by ProPublica and NPR also found dramatically different benefits for the same injuries in different states. So where workers are hurt can make all the difference between getting by and going into financial ruin. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Josh Potter was 25 years old when he fell into a 250-ton die press at a Georgia plant that makes soundproofing materials for cars. His left hand was crushed and doctors amputated just below the elbow. The plant's workers' compensation insurance pays the medical bills, plus about $286 a week to live on. That's close to half of what Potter was making at work.
JOSH POTTER: It's enough to survive, but it's - I've had to change my whole way of lifestyle just to make it. But I'd rather see a little bit than nothing at all.
BERKES: Potter, his wife and two kids are getting by in part because his wife works and their families help. Now, just across the state line in Alabama, another worker with a wife and two kids, a similar workplace accident and an amputated arm is far worse off, even though he made twice as much money at work. Jeremy Lewis was 27 years old in 2006 when he was injured.
JEREMY LEWIS: I lost a three bedroom, two bath house, a pickup, my wife's car and my brand-new Mustang. I couldn't pay for it. The money wasn't there no more.
BERKES: Lewis fell into a chain auger at a mill for chicken feed. It tore off his arm just below the elbow. Workers' comp pays his injury-related medical bills, but an arm amputee in Alabama gets the lowest wage replacement payments in the country. It would have been a lifetime payout of about $48,000 if he hadn't settled for a slightly lower lump sum. We mentioned this to Josh Potter across the border in Georgia, where his lifetime payout could be $700,000 more.
POTTER: He lost a part of his life and they're not - they're not even going to make it where he can live decent. I mean, to me that's complete and total garbage. After hearing that, I'm happy to have what I have.
BERKES: Each state divides the body up and assigns dollar values and time frames for different body parts - arms, fingers, hands, legs and eyes. Workers get a percentage of their former weekly wages for a specific number of weeks, which is different for each body part. This was an issue 40 years ago when a presidential commission looked at giving the system a national framework. John Burton chaired that 1972 effort.
JOHN BURTON: We were very critical of the state programs. We said state workers' compensation programs are in general inadequate and inequitable.
BERKES: Burton's commission recommended minimum federal worker's comp standards that, among other things, would give injured workers enough money to live on. Congress was asked to make the standards mandatory if states failed to adopt them. Most did adopt them, but adherence faded as medical costs increased and recessions hit.
BURTON: And that generated these intense pressures to keep your costs down and the way you keep costs down is to have inadequate benefits. Now we've restarted this cycle of undercutting other states in order to get your costs down, in order to save your employers from running away to these other states.
BERKES: Burton says Congress is even less likely now to impose national minimum benefits for workers' comp. And so the disparity among states continues. In Georgia, an amputated arm is considered a catastrophic injury. So Josh Potter gets two-thirds of his former weekly paycheck for life unless he goes back to work. But across the border in Alabama, it's a partial disability. So Jeremy Lewis is expected to return to work, and the most he could get is $220 a week for just over four years.
LYNN MCKENZIE: And so basically these people lose their houses, they lose their cars, sometimes they lose their families because their families get fed up.
BERKES: Lynn McKenzie is both a Benedictine sister and an attorney, who has spent 30 years representing injured workers, mediating their workers' comp claims and lobbying on their behalf. That $220 a week in Alabama is lower than the poverty level for a family of one, and that rate was set in 1985.
MCKENZIE: And yet, there doesn't seem to be a will in the state legislature to get that changed. So often times the best that the workers' comp injured community can do is to keep the law from changing at all. Otherwise it's going to change for the worst.
BERKES: Compared to those three nearby states, Alabama is more generous with some benefits, including lifetime medical care for workplace injuries and lifetime payments for total and permanent disabilities. Employers should be able to get reductions in those higher benefits before agreeing to raise the $220 a week payout, says Charles Carr, a Birmingham attorney who represents large companies in the state.
CHARLES CARR: You can't have workers' comp costs in Alabama being significantly higher than they are in other southern states. The whole thing should be revised and revamped. And it would hurt us if you just did piecemeal - just did one thing. That would hurt us in our competition with other states.
BERKES: So it's a stalemate in Alabama, and it persists no matter who's in charge, Republicans or Democrats. Business interests and their legislative allies resist raising the nation's lowest wage replacement benefit, which hasn't changed in 30 years. Worker advocates are afraid they'll face cuts in other benefits if they push hard for change. This leaves Jeremy Lewis perplexed. He and his family survive now on Social Security disability and his wife's job at Walmart.
LEWIS: The person who ever it was that come up with that, I don't believe they'd take that amount of money for their arm. There ain't no way. I mean, my arm's worth a lot more than that because it changed everything. I mean, it changed everything.
BERKES: Lewis did get back to work for a while, where he was sent to the feed mill to weigh and load trucks, putting enormous strain on the arm he had left. That led to a torn rotator cuff, another workers' comp claim and another settlement. He was paid more for the rotator cuff than the amputation of his other arm. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
GREENE: And you can see more of this reporting online. Our full investigation is at NPR.org. And there's an interactive feature showing state-by-state the dramatically different values of body parts in the workers' comp system. That is at ProPublica.org.
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