Pro Publica recently published a story about the dramatic variation in workers comp benefits offered by different states. It focused on Jeremy Lewis and Josh Potter, who each lost a portion of his left arm to machinery at work. Both men were married, in their mid-20s, and had two children. They lived 75 miles apart. Lewis received $45,000 in compensation for his injury; Potter‘s lifetime benefit could exceed $740,000. What’s different? Lewis worked in Alabama and Potter worked in Georgia.
The story includes an interactive chart that allows you to enter the state and injured body part, and see what the maximum benefit would be. It reminds me of the schedule of benefits that were posted in some of the shops I worked in. The schedules listed the “value” of each body part—what you would receive from the state workers comp system if you lost it. On more than one occasion my coworkers and I did the math to see what we were “worth” if we were obliterated piece by piece on the job. It wasn’t much.
Benefits have risen since those days, though they are not typically listed in dollar amounts. States usually pay based on disability, which is determined by statute to be some percentage of average weekly wages for a given period of time. The percentage and time period vary greatly between states. As an example, Pennsylvania will pay 2/3 of the average weekly wage for 335 weeks for the loss of a hand. In South Carolina the payout for that injury would be 2/3 of the average weekly wage for 185 weeks. And the average weekly wage in South Caroline is likely lower than that in Pennsylvania.
In most states, the degree of disability is based on American Medical Association (AMA) guidelines, which attempt to account for the “value” of various body parts. An arm is worth "X" and a leg is worth "Y". To lose both of something you have two of (eyes, hands, etc.) is considered to be more than twice as bad as losing only one of them. The guidelines place a higher value on the thumb and forefinger than they do on other fingers—which from the point of view of being able to work actually makes sense. Leaving aside variations in wages, it's harder to make sense of the disparity in benefits different states offer for the same injuries.