In February, the North Carolina General Assembly moved closer to legislation that would significantly curb the amount of recovery that workers who are injured on the job can get through the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation program. The legislation, which is backed by the North Carolina business lobby, seeks to:
- Restrict an injured worker’s right to select their own physician
- Eliminate some medical privacy rights related to communications between insurance companies and doctors
- Limit insurance compensation for not following treatment
- Automatically cease compensation after 500 weeks; and
- Require workers to accept a job of lower pay
The possibility of these dramatic changes to the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation system begs the question of why we need—and should work to preserve—the workers’ compensation system. In North Carolina, workers’ compensation was created by the General Assembly in 1929. Like many states across the nation that have created similar systems, the idea behind workers’ compensation in North Carolina is to provide effective, prompt and fair compensation to employees who are injured on the job. Since its creation, worker’s compensation has essentially functioned as a state-wide insurance program in which all employers across the state must participate. Then, when an employee is injured on the job—for any reason—the insurance fund kicks in to provide compensation to that employee. In North Carolina, the North Carolina Industrial Commission administers this program, handling over 60,000 claims from workers each year.
In practice, workers’ compensation can be thought of as an alternative to individual workers suing their employees when they are injured, and seeking recovery through lengthy—and often unpredictable—litigation. This channeling of workers injury suits away from the courts and through an insurance program is important. What it means is that, so long as the claim meets basic qualifications, an injured worker is guaranteed some form of compensation without having to prove that the employer was at fault. Workers can avoid lengthy and stressful litigation and still receive compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and other items.
Workers’ compensation has a long history in North Carolina of serving our workers by providing prompt and effective recovery when they are victims of a workplace injury. The changes to our workers’ compensation system that are currently being proposed at the General Assembly threaten to undermine workers’ rights and unnecessarily limit their freedom in seeking medical treatment.