Governmental regulation—or its more friendly name, oversight—is a prickly subject in modern politics. Conservative politicians like to hatefully spit these phrases at their adoring crowds, apparently willing to ignore the fact that governmental intervention is what brought about the end of child labor in the United States, and which helped us secure the right to an 8-hour work day and a five-day work week.
In point of fact, it’s always been the government’s job to intercede when corporate America launches one of its attacks on workers’ rights. And this, friends, has been going on since time immemorial.
The latest corporate abuse being discussed in Washington D.C. has to do with worker’s compensation. American laborers have always been able to count on this suite of laws as a safety net when they’re injured and can no longer work. Indeed; if you take a look around, you can probably find classes and seminars in your area that can help you learn more about your rights if you’ve been injured on the job.
But now, Democrats in Congress are turning their attention to what’s being called a “pattern of detrimental changes in workers’ compensation laws.” This pattern, they say, has resulted in dramatically reduced protections for injured workers over the past decade or so.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, whose job it is to bring these kinds of problems before the nation’s leadership, recently wrote a letter citing investigations by NPR and ProPublica that found that 33 states have actively cut workers’ comp benefits and made it more difficult for injured workers to qualify for medical and financial benefits.
Wrote Perez: “State workers’ compensation laws are no longer providing adequate levels of support and compensation for workers injured on the job … The race to the bottom no appears to be nearly bottomless.”
Bernie Sanders, an independent Senator and presidential hopeful on the Democratic side of the aisle, added his signature to the letter, as well as his support. Other signees include members of the Senate Budget Committee and Senate Labor Committee, including Patty Murray and Bobby Scott.
The United States Labor Department had been keeping tabs on changes to workers’ comp practices until 2004, at which point budget cuts rendered it unable to do so any longer. It had been tracking things like adherence to 19 minimum standards for benefits, which have been in existence since 1972, under President Richard Nixon’s leadership.
The curious part of this story is how little attention it’s being paid by Republican lawmakers, most of whom tout their “fiscal responsibility” and “limited government” credentials come election season. The fact is, when companies are allowed to ignore their responsibilities to injured workers, the burden is placed on taxpayers by way of United States’ public services such as disability, Medicaid, and food stamps. It’s estimated that roughly 20 percent in the recent increase in federal disability cases is a direct consequence of these cuts in workers’ compensation benefits.
In 2007, this pattern came to a head when a health economist by the name of J. Paul Leigh revealed that workplace injuries that don’t receive coverage from workers’ comp programs cost government programs $30 billion every year.
For those of us holding down desk jobs in Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C., it’s easy to forget that there are millions of Americans who put themselves in harm’s way each day just to make ends meet, such as this construction worker in upstate New York, or these poor souls in Houston who were trapped after a scaffolding collapse. With so much of the government focus on the energy and technology sectors, the silent majority go unnoticed.
But, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the most tragic part of this story is that nothing is likely to come of it for a long while. Despite the support of these ranking Democrats, Congress remains under the “leadership” of Conservative politicians, who owe fealty first and foremost to the people responsible for these problems in the first place.
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