The Oklahoma and Florida supreme courts both overturned anti-worker changes to their state workers’ compensation laws based in whole or in part on their state constitutions. Workers’ compensation laws, for the most part, are state laws. This post seeks to explain why workers’ compensation laws are state laws and what that could mean for workers’ compensation laws in the future.
The vast majority of workers’ compensation attorneys and industry observers know the term “Grand Bargain.” In the “Grand Bargain,” employees gave up the right to sue their employers in tort for work injuries in exchange for defined benefits regardless of fault.
Workers’ compensation laws emerged roughly a century ago. However, Congress did not have the power to enact the “Grand Bargain” because of how the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause. In 1895, the court held in United States v. E.C. Knight that manufacturing was not commerce. In 1918, the court overturned a law prohibiting child labor on similar grounds and additionally held that the effects of child labor did not have enough of an impact on interstate commerce to justify regulation.
The Supreme Court did uphold the constitutionality of workers’ compensation laws in the case of New York Central Railroad v. White. However, the court upheld workers’ compensation laws based on a state’s so-called “police powers” under the 10th Amendment.
During the New Deal era in the 1930s, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the interstate commerce clause changed so that workers’ compensation laws could have been enacted by the federal government. But by then, most states had workers’ compensation laws, so a general federal workers’ compensation law was unnecessary.
‘Federalization’ in the Post-New Deal Era
In the 1970s, Congress passed laws regarding occupational safety (Occupational Safety and Health Act) and employee benefits (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) under its authority granted by the interstate commerce clause. But neither OSHA nor ERISA were intended to interfere with state workers’ compensation laws.
The 1970s also saw an ultimately failed effort to impose federal minimum standards on state workers’ compensation. It was in this era that the term “federalization” and the concerns about the impact of federal laws on state workers’ compensation systems emerged.
Federalization re-emerged as an issue in the 2000s when concerns arose that the costs of workers’ compensation injuries were being shifted onto Medicare, and the federal government tried to fashion remedies to shift the cost back onto the workers’ compensation system. The effect of the Affordable Care Act on workers’ compensation was another federal issue that was hotly debated in workers’ compensation circles.
Finally in President Obama’s second term, OSHA issued many rules about medical care and drug testing that could have affected workers’ compensation laws. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and other elected leaders also wrote a letter to the Secretary of Labor pointing out the failure of state-based workers’ compensation systems.
Conventional wisdom is that the election of Donald Trump paired with a Republican Congress will end the Obama era efforts at federalization of the workers’ compensation system. There is probably a fair amount of truth to this idea, but the Trump era may not spell the end of federalization of workers’ compensation.
In the 2010s “sharing economy,” companies such as Uber and Lyft emerged. The business model of these companies is premised on workers being independent contractors. However, this has created litigation and uncertainty for these companies. In 2015, the Democratic-aligned Brookings Institute hosted a discussion about the “reforming” labor laws for companies like Uber. Though workers’ compensation laws are traditionally state-based laws, there is no constitutional prohibition on designing workers’ compensation systems at a federal level. Unfortunately, it seems as some Democrats could find common ground with Donald Trump and House Speaker Ryan to amend ERISA and the Fair Labor Standards Act to exempt Uber drivers and other sharing economy workers from laws such as workers’ compensation.
* Jon Rehm represents employees across the state of Nebraska in workers compensation and wrongful termination cases. He is a member of the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys, the American Association of Justice, the American Bar Association, the Nebraska State Bar Association as well as the Lincoln Bar Association.
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