Workers’ comp gender gap: Does the system underpay women?
The pay gap between men and women is a stubborn and rather upsetting fact of American life. On average, women make only 79 percent of what men make – and the gender gap has barely budged at all in the past decade.
This fact has been widely reported. But is it true that there is also a gap in what women receive in workers’ compensation benefits?
In this post, we will explore that question.
California class action
In California, a group of women and a labor union are bringing a class-action lawsuit against the state agencies and officials that operate the workers’ compensation system. The suit alleges that injured women are denied equal benefits for disabling conditions suffered in the workplace.
Two of the plaintiffs are women who underwent mastectomies after exposure to cancerous toxins on the job.
In one of those cases, a medical examiner admitted that the woman’s breast cancer was work-related. But the examiner asserted that the woman did not have a permanent disability – despite scarring and psychological distress.
The examiner’s conclusion was also at odds with the position of the U.S. Veterans Administration. The VA assigns a disability rating of 30 to 80 percent for mastectomies.
And, perhaps most galling of all, the denial of benefits for a gender-specific type of work-related cancer was at odds with a comparable type of cancer for men. The guide used by California to deny disability benefits when a woman has a mastectomy assigns a disability rating to 16 to 20 percent to a man who has his prostate removed.
Cases like the one we discussed above call attention to underlying problems with the medical examination system for workers’ compensation.
The vast majority of doctors who provide medical evaluations in California workers’ compensation claims are men. This may result in a self-perpetuating system, in which systemic gender bias has taken hold.
Such bias is not only evident in obvious gender-specific cases like mastectomies. There are also documented instances in which women have been denied full workers’ compensation benefits because of statistical evidence that women are more likely than men to get conditions such as carpal tunnel.
In other words, the suit accuses California of compensating injured women less simply because they are women. This can cost women from 20 to 80 percent of what they would have otherwise received if they had been men.
Colorado’s compensation system
The lawsuit we have been discussing is going on in California, not Colorado. But the glaring facts of the case are enough to cause concern here in Colorado as well.