It would be a mistake to think that we live in one country. In point of fact, the United States is nothing less than a collection of 50 small countries, each with their own cultures, idiosyncrasies and, of course, laws.

Recreational marijuana, for example, is legal in just four states: Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. But in Pennsylvania, our state senate seems to be making no progress at all; they’re still bickering about how best to dismantle the state’s monopoly on liquor sales.

In the grand scheme of things, though, marijuana legalization is a fairly new phenomenon; a lack of consensus is to be expected. However: one area where this kind of fragmentation feels a bit less appropriate is the realm of employment law. Specifically: worker’s compensation.

‘The Powers Not Delegated…’

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution says this: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This is really the crux of the problem: the Constitution simply doesn’t make any mention of worker’s compensation. In fact, some would argue that compulsory workers’ compensation laws are actually unconstitutional, on account of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

As a result, the states get to decide what happens when an employee gets injured on the job. I generally support the idea that states should remain “laboratories of democracy”—that is, that they can choose their own path when it comes to matters of public policy. This is a good thing for the states that are still struggling with the aforementioned cannabis legalization issue. It’s clear enough that the country as a whole isn’t ready to have a mature conversation about it, so I’m fine with letting our more progressive states lead the way.

But you lose me when matters of human dignity are shuffled to the sidelines or left to languish in state legislatures. While the government has been dragging its feet on the workers’ comp issue, there has arisen an absurdly complex world of contradictory laws.

Take a look at this chart from the National Federation of Independent Business. It reveals a stunning patchwork of worker’s comp laws that stretches across the country. In Alaska, for example, each and every company employing one or more employees is required to carry worker’s compensation insurance. In Texas, occupational injury insurance is required only for companies in specific industries, such as construction or government contracting.

But it doesn’t stop there. Adding to the chaos of worker’s comp laws is the sheer multitude of insurance companies, all of which have policies and demands of their own. Some of them require an independent medical examination to ascertain fault and determine whether an employee’s injury can be covered by insurance. It’s an important step toward resolving compensation disputes, but you wouldn’t be wrong to pity the employee for the added red tape.

A Workers’ Bill of Rights

All the way back in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a second Bill of Rights. He recognized, rightly, that the existing Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” This proposed Constitutional addendum would have added eight new, specific, and inalienable rights:

  • Employment with a living wage
  • Food, clothing, and leisure
  • Farmers’ rights to a fair income
  • Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
  • Housing
  • Medical care
  • Social security
  • Education

Sounds pretty reasonable, yes? I could take them line by line, but I don’t think it’s necessary; most of the developed world has already identified these rights as a part of a reasonable, fair, and forward-thinking social contract. The Nordic countries in particular have proven time and again that they’re ahead of the curve on human rights issues; universal healthcare and affordable education are provided to all citizens as a matter of course. Meanwhile, in the US, we still treat these things like luxuries.

I think it’s long past time we amended our Constitution. It’s now a 228-year-old document that has, in many ways, failed to keep pace with human progress. You’re going to tire of hearing about the 1% and our borderline criminal income inequality as we enter presidential election season, but there should be little doubt that these issues, and many others that impact American workers, should be front and center in policy conversations.

Dan Wilhelm
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Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice
  • DdW

    Good, thought-provoking piece, Daniel.

    Thank you.

    I, for one, am for the “united” states to act more “United” when it comes to “inalienable rights.”

    But then again, I basically come from two small countries with small provinces where the “federal” or central government has most of the power and it seems to be working just fine.

  • Here in Oregon workers comp has an interesting history. Decades ago logging was a dangerous but primary occupation. Private insurance refused to underwrite workers comp for the logging industry so the state stepped in starting a state run non profit insurance company. It proved to be so successful that most employers in Oregon opted for the state owned and run insurance because in proved to be very efficient and affordable. To this day the private insurance companies are whining that they can’t compete with the state insurance company.