ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Podcast: Reporting on Workers’ Comp

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(Matt Rota for ProPublica)

If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t think about the ins and outs of workers’ comp -- until you get injured on the job.

Then, ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell tells senior editor Tracy Weber in today’s podcast, you find out just how much your medical care and financial well-being depend on a mishmash of laws in your state.

As Grabell’s reporting with NPR’s Howard Berkes found, those laws mean huge disparities in benefits, especially as 33 states have rolled back the program in recent years. The maximum compensation for the loss of an eye is $27,280 in Alabama, for example, but $261,525 in Pennsylvania.

Grabell started the project after using workers’ comp data in his last investigation, on temp workers. All throughout his journalism career, he says, “workers’ comp was a story you didn’t touch; it was seen as this bottomless pit.”

But by painstakingly gathering and examining the workers’ comp laws in each state, he and Berkes were able to show just how the contract to protect workers had been rolled back in recent years, all while costs to employers continue to go down. In essence, he says, legislatures are competing with neighboring states to attract businesses.

“So one state after another has passed these changes in hopes of reducing their costs,” he says, “and using workers’ comp as an economic development tool, which it never was intended to be.”

Weber points out that some of the lawmakers who have voted to cut benefits don’t understand the ramifications of those cuts. Grabell agrees, saying that many of the legislators he spoke to said they had never heard injured workers complain. “This was something we heard over and over again,” Grabell says. “There’s no constituency of the future injured worker.”

Hear their full conversation on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher, and and check out the full investigation on workers’ comp.

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