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Workers' Comp: Protecting Employers and Employees

“Workers’ compensation” is the title for a system of insurance that covers injuries suffered by employees while on the job. What farmers might not know is that workers’ comp protects the farmer just as much as the farm worker. A key aspect workers’ comp is that when it is available an injured employee may not sue the farmer directly to cover medical expenses.

What’s the situation?

It’s the thing every farmer fears: One of the folks who comes out to help till fields–or pick and wash veggies, or move the cows from pasture to pasture–gets hurt on the job. Whether it’s a broken ankle or a chronic respiratory problem, an injury concerns everyone. Will the employee miss out on work? And who will pay for the medical expenses?

Where does the law come in?

Back before workers’ comp, employees had a couple of options if they were injured on the job: They could ask their employer to pay for medical bills, they could use their own resources to pay, or they could sue the employer for providing unsafe working conditions and be awarded damages. Nowadays workers’ compensation covers medical expenses and lost wages. Many businesses, including farms, are required to provide this insurance. Even if workers’ comp isn’t required, farmers should know how it could benefit their business.

Details, please:

Workers’ compensation is a familiar topic to many farmers.  Even those lucky enough not to have held a “real” job know about workers’ comp! In today’s world, insurance is a fact of life and workers’ comp is a an insurance policy. But there are some key differences between workers’ compensation and, for example, health insurance. A story might be the best way to explain the unique nature of workers’ comp.

Let’s say Farmer Jane buys workers’ comp to cover her employees. Then one day her employee, William, pulls a rototiller out of the shed and starts prepping a bed for spinach. All of a sudden one of the blades flies off the machine and hits William in the ankle. William heads to the hospital immediately, of course, but after that he files a claim with the workers’ compensation company. Before long, his medical bills are paid and he receives some of the wages he lost while his ankle healed.

So we have a happy ending, right? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. Workers’ compensation was envisioned to protect the employer as much as the employee.

Let’s say that Jane had just purchased the offending rototiller at a garage sale. Before she bought it, the former owner instructed her that the blades were damaged and must be replaced immediately. In this case, William would have a “tort” claim against Jane. Broadly speaking, a tort is a wrongful act that isn’t criminal. It’s a civil wrong. Examples of torts include letting hazardous ice build up on the sidewalk outside a store or installing unsafe equipment on a playground. Something is considered “wrongful” if the normal person in the same situation would have behaved in a safer manner. If William brought a tort claim, the court would ask if most farmers in the same circumstance would have put the rototiller in the shed for use by employees. If most farmers would not, then Jane may be liable for William’s damages under tort law.

Now Jane is really glad she bought workers’ comp! Where workers’ compensation is available, the injured employee may not bring a tort claim against the farmer, no matter how unreasonably the farmer behaved. (I should note that many industries are regulated for unsafe working conditions under other laws–those may still be the subject of a lawsuit.) The injured employee may seek compensation only from the insurance company. Also, there may be other limitations on the injured worker’s award, such as predetermined compensation rates rather than compensation for actual bills incurred in treating the injury.

As you can see, workers’ compensation protects Jane just as much, if not more, than it protects William. William gets his medical bills covered while Jane doesn’t have to worry about a lawsuit. Farmers in some states are required to carry workers’ comp. Even if farmers in your state aren’t, you might want to consider buying it to protect yourself and your employees.

What do you think?

  • Do you or your farming neighbors choose to buy workers’ comp insurance? Has it proved useful?
  • Insurance companies vary and it’s tough to decipher the fine print on the policy. Have you tried reading it to see what is actually covered?
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