Study highlights disparity in workers’ compensation

Lee Friedman

Lee Friedman found disparities in worker’s comp settlements for white, Hispanic and African American construction workers.
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services.

White construction workers are awarded higher workers’ compensation settlements in Illinois than Hispanic or black construction workers with similar injuries and disabilities, according to School of Public Health researchers.

The disparity amounted to about $6,000 more for white workers, compared to minority workers in the same industry, said Lee Friedman, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences.

The researchers evaluated 1,039 cases (68 black, 168 Hispanic, 724 white and 79 other ethnicities), studying medical records data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and workers’ compensation data from the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission for 2000 to 2005.

The settlements for white workers were substantially higher, despite controlling for average weekly wage, type of injury, injury severity, weeks of temporary disability, percent permanent partial disability and whether the worker used an attorney — all factors known to contribute to the final decision for monetary compensation in the claims process.

White construction workers were consistently awarded higher monetary settlements even though the mean percent permanent partial disability was equivalent to or lower than that of black and Hispanic construction workers, the study found.

This was true for amputations, torso injuries, open wounds of the upper extremity and traumatic brain injury.

The most common types of injuries for all workers were fractures, internal injuries and open wounds.

The study does not explain why white construction workers would receive higher compensation, Friedman said.

“One explanation is that there is some systemic bias or prejudices occurring within the system,” he said.

“Or, it could be that the level of information and knowledge about how the system works — and what can actually be litigated, disputed or requested for compensation — might vary by ethnic group.”

The study was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Friedman’s co-authors are Peter Ruestow and Linda Forst, School of Public Health.

The research was funded by a grant from the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, through a cooperative agreement with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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