Workers’ Compensation Overview
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than three million workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses occur place every year in the United States. This number encompasses a wide range of harms: from minor slips to debilitating industrial accidents to, in some cases, death. OSHA figures identified more than 4,400 workplace deaths in 2012, a shocking number that averages out to 84 lost workers each week.
Although most employers strive to provide a safe workplace for their employees, the reality is that it is nearly impossible to totally eliminate the risk of accidents. These accidents can not only cause serious physical harm, but can result in the loss of a paycheck and the burden of mounting medical bills, enough to overwhelm even the most financially responsible families. Thankfully, the workers’ compensation system exists to compensate those employees who have suffered serious harm and who must still find a way to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
What is workers’ compensation?
Workers’ compensation laws in South Carolina are contained in the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act. The legislation codifies a series of rules designed to protect workers in South Carolina who have suffered injuries arising out of their employment. Any worker who has sustained such injuries is legally entitled to recover medical expenses, lost earnings and disability benefits.
Who must carry workers’ comp insurance?
In South Carolina, the general rule is that every employer must either carry workers’ compensation insurance or self-insure for the risk of injury. Specifically, the law says that any employer that regularly employs four or more workers, whether full-time or part-time, must have workers’ comp insurance. Though this is the general rule, there are, of course, exceptions. Included among the exceptions are those working in the agricultural sector, railroad companies, and those businesses that had a payroll of less than $3,000 in the previous year.
What benefits are you entitled to?
The South Carolina workers’ compensation system guarantees that injured workers who successfully file a claim are entitled to compensation for things such as medical expenses, lost wages, mileage and, should the case require it, disability benefits. In cases of total or permanent disability, loss of limbs or disfigurement, workers will receive long-term payments, lasting months or even years into the future. Finally, in the most tragic cases, benefits can be paid out to surviving family members following the death of a worker.
The South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act sets the overall wage compensate rate at 66 and two-thirds percent of the injured worker’s average weekly wage. Though this is the general rule, it is subject to a statutory minimum and maximum compensation range. The minimum compensation rate, as set in the law, is $75 per week, unless that exceeds the amount of money actually earned by the employee prior to the injury. If so, the minimum will be set at the employee’s actual weekly wage.
Though it is good news for workers that there is a minimum level, it’s not so great to be told about a ceiling on the amount an injured worker can collect from a workers’ comp claim. The laws say that weekly compensation will equal 66 and two-thirds the amount of an individual’s average weekly wage, however, this figure cannot exceed the average weekly wage in the state. According to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce, for 2014, this weekly maximum is $752.16.
How long do benefits last?
Under the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, injured employees are able to receive disability benefits for as long as 500 weeks. A detailed schedule exists explaining how may weeks of benefits typically attach to various injuries. The schedule includes minor injuries that come with only a few weeks of payments, to debilitating injuries such as lost limbs, which require long-term payment plans. Only a few incredibly serious cases allow for lifetime benefits to injured workers. These cases include instances where employees were left paralyzed or suffered substantial traumatic brain injuries.
Here in South Carolina, state officials say the construction industry is among worst in terms of yearly workplace deaths. Construction workers, agricultural workers and manufacturing workers all suffer the most deadly accidents. Among nonfatal workplace accidents, a surprising industry takes the lead, at least on a national basis: healthcare professionals. That’s right, according to recent Department of Labor statistics, nurses, orderlies and other medical workers suffer more injuries per capita than do those in the construction or manufacturing industries. These injuries are often the result of being dangerously overworked and understaffed, with too few employees responsible for too many patients.
Common causes of accidents
The following are some of the most common examples of accidents that lead to workers’ compensation claims in South Carolina. Slipping, tripping, chemical exposure, motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents, equipment malfunction, crush injuries, falls and repetitive motion injuries. It is important to understand that while injuries can happen for a multitude of reasons, the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act protects workers injured for any reason, so long as the injury occurred during the course and scope of your employment.
Injuries most commonly associated with a South Carolina workers’ compensation case include broken bones, sprained muscles, knee, back or shoulder injuries, spinal cord damage, brain injuries, respiratory illness, burns, herniated disks, and in some cases, psychological damage such as severe depression or anxiety.
In the most tragic cases, family members can pursue claims for death benefits after losing a loved one in a work-related accident. These death benefit claims can arise if death occurs within two years of an injury or, if the person is on total disability, within six years of an injury. In these cases, the dependents of the employee will receive weekly payments of up to 66 and two-thirds of the employee’s average weekly wage (subject to minimum and maximum levels) for a period of no less than 500 weeks. Additionally, a burial allowance is also provided to grieving family members.
Steps injured workers should take:
Report the accident
If you’ve been injured in a South Carolina workplace accident you should report that injury to a supervisor as soon as possible. Though you may not think timing matters, the reality is that it can be crucial and, in some cases, even lead to the denial of a workers’ otherwise valid claim. Delays in reporting create dangerous lags before injured workers are able to see a physician. This can mean symptoms go untreated and that employers have a chance to dispute injury claims, perhaps even denying that the injury took place at work.
The law in South Carolina is clear that injured employees must give notice to their employer at the time of the accident or as soon as possible thereafter. Though timing is of the essence, the Workers’ Compensation Act allows employees up to 90 days to report the accident. This 90-day clock can be extended even further in cases where the patient has suffered debilitating injuries and is unable to communicate with his or her employer.
In some cases, especially those involving repetitive stress injuries, the 90-day clock doesn’t begin ticking until the date at which the employee discovered or could have discovered the condition. This means that anyone who is diagnosed with something like carpal tunnel syndrome has 90 days from the date of diagnosis, not the date at which the earliest wrist injury occurred.
Find a workers’ compensation attorney
Once you’ve reported the accident to a supervisor you will likely be sent to a doctor selected by your employer. Under South Carolina law, the employer has the right to select the physician. At this early stage it’s important to cooperate and follow instructions given by both your employer and treating physician.
Once you’ve seen a doctor, the next step taken by many injured workers is to contact a skilled South Carolina workers’ compensation attorney. It is your lawyer’s job to dive into the details of your case and evaluate not only the extent of your injuries, but also the potential value of your case. Your lawyer will advise you on what steps need to be taken next to ensure your case is put in the best position possible.
File a workers’ compensation claim
In some cases, the employer will report the injury to the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission. In other cases, the employer may deny the claim and try and sweep the matter to the side. If so, it’s up to you and your attorney to bring the claim. To file the claim, your lawyer will submit what is known as a Form 50. The process of filing and shepherding a workers’ comp case through the state’s bureaucracy can be confusing and highly complex. As a result, it can be relief to rely on the experience of a skilled South Carolina lawyer who has successfully managed other claims in the past, taking one more thing off your already overburdened mind.
An important note about timing: In South Carolina, injured workers are usually required to bring forward workers’ compensation claims within two years of an accident. This timeline differs with repetitive stress injuries or occupational disease cases, such as mesothelioma.
Can your employer punish you?
No. Let’s be crystal clear about this: an employer is not allowed to fire or punish a worker for filing a workers’ compensation claim, assuming, of course, that worker’s injury was caused by their work. This protection against retaliation extends to cover your colleagues who might be called in to testify in your case. The law says that employers are not able to fire or punish others for testifying in support of an injured co-worker.
Although it is inevitable that accidents will happen at work, under South Carolina law, employers are still responsible for keeping the workplace safe for all staff members. If you have been hurt on the job, contact Greenville SC Workers Comp Lawyer David R. Price, Jr., P.A., to learn more about how to file for workers’ compensation benefits.