Monday, September 13, 2010

Human Rights Violations Against Workers


In our current fragmented system of health care financing, adequate and accessible workers’ compensation health insurance is essential for the protection of the right to health. In the United States, state level workers’ compensation systems are the only source of health coverage for injuries on the job.

Nearly a quarter of a million workers in the state of New York become injured on the job each year. Even when injured due to employers’ negligence, they have no recourse to the courts as workers’ compensation is intended as a substitute for law suits arising from injury. In exchange, workers are supposed to have a no fault system that covers everyone expeditiously and equitably.

Instead, workers with injuries are generally forced to prove their need for health care and wage replacement benefits in a grossly unbalanced match against powerful insurance companies and lawyers. Early in the process, workers are forced to go to low quality doctors paid by insurance companies to assess whether a worker has been injured on the job. In conflict with medical ethics, these doctors, misleadingly called Independent Medical Examiners (IMEs), go to great lengths to deny claims.

Much too often, the process turns into a bureaucratic and procedural nightmare, where workers are humiliated, stigmatized and subject to investigations that violate their right to privacy. Very little of this process is shaped by objective medical review or public health considerations. Indeed, the Workers' Compensation Board is rife with unjustified delays in access to medical care and wage replacement, rejection of legitimate injuries, obstacles for non-English speakers and inadequate rates of compensation.

The strain on workers can be extremely severe. Many workers develop new mental or physical problems as a result of their experiences with the Workers' Compensation Board, for which they might never receive support. With limited resources and inability to work, these workers and their families face hunger, extreme insecurity, and a heavy burden of guilt that they are no longer providing for their families. Essentially, workers begin with sickness and injury and often end up sicker and more injured, creating a devastating impact on human dignity and well-being.

NESRI is working with workers with injuries in upstate New York to develop analysis, documentation, public education materials and a human rights report on violations of the right to health and social security in New York’s workers’ compensation system. NESRI has also trained workers with injuries in participatory human rights documentation, and in turn, they have conducted dozens of interviews of fellow workers with injuries.

NESRI: National Economic & Social Rights Initiative

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