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Marking the 100th Anniversary of the PA Workers' Comp Act

June 3, 2015

By: Marianne Henry Saylor

On June 2, 2015, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania celebrated the centennial anniversary of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. The seminal law, providing no-fault protection for work-related injuries, was passed into law on June 2, 1915, to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1916.

In the early 20th century, as the United States was becoming more industrialized, pressure began mounting for workers’ compensation schemes. Many states began to examine ways to provide injured workers with legal remedies which would not force them to use the civil legal process and prove negligence in order to receive compensation for work injuries. Other countries, such as Great Britain and Germany, were leading the way for providing compensation for injured workers. In Pennsylvania, several years of debate ensued over what type of benefits would be provided under the law. Ultimately, the Commonwealth enacted a law which provided no-fault coverage for wages lost and medical expenses incurred as a result of work-related injuries.

Expected opposition to the law by the manufacturing section did not materialize. The Act was seen as a benefit to employers because it limited an employer’s exposure to liability for work injuries. Prior to the law, an injured worker had to file a civil lawsuit alleging negligence against the employer. An injured worker could recover compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, as well as pain and suffering. Under the Act, injured workers cannot receive compensation for pain and suffering.

The Act provides for compensation for wage loss and medical expenses for injuries which occur in the course and scope of employment. The definition of injury includes aggravation of pre-existing conditions, as well as mental or psychological conditions. The Courts have created a significant burden of proof for injuries which are solely psychological in nature. Specifically, an employee seeking coverage for a work injury must prove that the injury was the result of “abnormal working conditions.”

The law has been altered many times over the years to reflect the ways in which the workplace has changed and advancements in medicine. Significantly, the Act was amended to include coverage for occupational diseases in the 1930s. This was further expanded over the years. Most recently, in 2011, the Act was amended to provide for a presumption that cancers diagnosed in firefighters is related to their exposures to cancer-causing agents.

Nearly 20 years ago, the law was amended by Act 57, which provided employers with new ways to reduce benefits paid to injured workers. In part, it gave employers the right to reduce an injured worker’s benefits against the worker’s pension and social security retirement benefits. Perhaps most significantly, Act 57 created the Impairment Rating Evaluation process which allows employers to cut off wage loss benefits to workers who are still disabled after they have received 500 weeks of benefits. This has the effect of cutting off benefits to workers who are among the most severely injured by workplace accidents. As a result of these efforts, as well as efforts to control medical costs, employers have encountered reduced premiums for workers’ compensation insurance for the last several years.

Across the country, there are efforts to replace workers’ compensation laws with employer-controlled programs. The Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation (ARAWC) has been created to pass laws throughout the country which allow private companies to opt out of compulsory workers’ compensation plans. Employers still would be responsible for workers’ compensation coverage, but they would be allowed to create the coverage, including specifying what injuries are covered and for how long, as well as what type of benefits the injured worker would be entitled to receive. Texas and Oklahoma already allow employers to opt out of mandatory workers’ compensation coverage.

Fortunately, in Pennsylvania, the evolution of the Workers’ Compensation Act has allowed it to remain an important mechanism to enable both employers and injured workers to adequately address workplace injuries.

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