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Policy brief analyzes low wage-worker injuries and benefits

Many positive steps have been taken in improving worker safety for workers across the country. However, North Carolina residents earning below the median wage of $11.19 an hour know a different reality -- their lower wage makes them more vulnerable to financial problems after a workplace injury.

According to a policy brief, 22 percent of the U.S. workforce in 65 occupations earns below the median wage. The brief also revealed that almost 600 low wage workers sustained fatal injuries on the job, more than 12,000 passed away from occupational ailments and more than one million workers sustained non fatal workplace injuries. And workers' compensation benefits are often limited for low wage employees -- for example, it fails to cover the almost $15 billion spent on medical care for these injuries.

The policy brief discovered that even less than 25 percent of the total costs of occupational illnesses are covered by workers' compensation benefits for lower wage workers. In fact, workers may not even have paid sick leave, which means they start working again without recuperating completely and may in fact elongate their illness and increase their medical expenses.

The brief also claimed that not only do employees not carry proper insurance for lower wage workers, they may also be discouraged from reporting the injury and not receive any benefits at all.

The brief recommends creating a stronger safety net for injured workers since missing a few days of work should mean missing rent or school payments. In addition to that, efforts to increase safer work environments would reduce the number of accidents and injuries in the first place.

North Carolina workers, regardless of their wage, have the right to file a workers' compensation claim if they are injured performing their duties. Filing a claim not only may make compensation available but may also go a long way in improving working conditions to reduce the number of workplace accidents.

Source: EHS Today, "Occupational injuries among low-wage workers pack a big economic punch," Laura Walter, Feb. 8, 2013

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