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Recapping Workers’ Compensation: A Q&A with ProPublica and NPR

Earlier this month, ProPublica published an investigation with NPR digging into the workers' compensation systems of all 50 states.

Since 2003, more than 30 states have passed workers' comp laws that reduce benefits, create hurdles to getting medical care or make it more difficult to qualify. We also found that workers' body parts (as in arms, legs, fingers and toes) aren't created equal — limbs can be worth 10 times as much in benefits depending on where workers are injured. The modern workers' comp system is, essentially, a geographic lottery based on where you work. The stories of Jeremy Lewis and Josh Potter are just one example:

ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell (@michaelgrabell) and NPR reporter Howard Berkes (@hberkes) spent nearly a year digging through the workers' comp reforms across the country to document the decline in coverage for many workers. Lena Groeger (@lenagroeger) created an interactive database charting the maximum compensation workers can receive for different injuries by state.

The three reporters held an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Here's a recap:

Questions and answers have been edited for length and style.

Question: If someone like retired Major League Baseball pitcher Antonio Alfonseca, who was born with 12 fingers and 12 toes, lost one of his surplus fingers while on the job, would he still be entitled to compensation even though he'd be back to the normal 5 fingers on that hand? If so, how would the loss of a sixth finger be classified given that it is not an index, middle, ring, or pinky finger?

If the injury occurred during an away game in a different state, do you think he'd be compensated according to his team's home state, or the state the injury occurred in?


Michael Grabell, ProPublica: Thanks LimbCurious. I haven't seen the question of additional fingers and toes spelled out in any law. But I'm sure if it has been addressed it would be in Larson's Worker's Comp Law, which contains 17 volumes on different states' case law.

Interesting, though, several states including California, Arizona and Michigan have passed laws in recent years limiting eligibility rules for out-of-state athletes.

Q: What do you think is a solution to addressing state-level differences in worker's compensation?


Howard Berkes, NPR: A presidential commission in 1972 recommended minimum workers' comp standards for the states. The commission wanted Congress to step in if the states didn't adopt the standards. Many states did initially but only seven states now follow at least 15 of the 19 recommendations. Four states comply with less than half. The commission chair, John Burton, told us he doesn't believe Congress will step in given the political climate.

Q: What do you hope is the end goal of this investigation? Aside from shedding light on a largely invisible issue, what would like to see happen going forward?


Michael Grabell, ProPublica: We don't have an end goal in mind other than to shine a light on the issue. Following our story, California's division of workers' comp launched an audit of an insurance company that removed a paralyzed workers' home health aide. The agency also warned insurers not to use the law as an excuse to reopen approved care plans. And yesterday, the legislature had a hearing to discuss how the new reform law was playing out. We've also heard some discussion on the federal level and other state legislatures.

Q: Y'all got a lot of fun attention for having data on compensation for injuries to the testicles. I have a few questions about that. First is why there is only data on testicular compensation in a handful of states? Second is whether there is ever compensation made for injuries to the breasts?


Michael Grabell, ProPublica: Not all states assign a specific number of weeks of compensation for the loss of a testicle in their law. There are a few states that do spell out compensation for breasts. Also, just because it's not specified in the law doesn't mean the state doesn't compensate. Instead, doctors determine what percentage of the body the person has lost, often by consulting guides put out by the American Medical Association. Currently, there are four different editions of the guides in use, depending on which state you're in.

One thing that's important to remember on gender differences is that these schedules have been in the law sometimes for 100 years, when it was still workmen's comp and there weren't many women in the workforce. It's only in recent decades that many states have modified their law to incorporate gender-neutral language.

Q: There has been criticism of your report: data from NCCI and the WCRI contradicts some of the impressions in the ProPublica report. For example, no discussion on cost drivers and other factors such as the rising cost of medical expenses, etc. How do you respond to the critics of this report?


Michael Grabell, ProPublica: Here's our detailed response. We relied extensively on data from NCCI, WCRI and others throughout our report.

Q: As a millennial, my anecdotal experience has been that people my age do not pay as much attention to labor rights as older generations have. For instance, a lot of people I know are working more hours than they are paid for, unpaid internships, working full-time hours but being labeled part-time so they don't get benefits, etc. Do you think - obviously this is just your journalistic sense - that a lack of attention paid by a younger generation of workers is part of the problem in terms of why workers seem to be losing rights like these that they used to have?


­Michael Grabell, ProPublica: We found this to be universal. Nobody thinks about workers' comp until they're injured at work -- regardless of age. Do you know who your company's workers' comp carrier is or what your state law is? I didn't until this project.

Read the full Reddit Ask Me Anything.

New to Reddit?Click here to create an account, check out this beginner's guide from Mashable or Reddit's official FAQ.

If you have experience navigating the workers' comp system in your state, we'd like to hear from you. Share your story.

For more workers' comp coverage, go to ProPublica's investigation page.

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