by Marie Felde
California's injured workers are having a difficult time obtaining basic information, let alone getting the benefits they are entitled to receive under the state's workers' compensation system, according to a new report by Berkeley researchers.
Despite state Labor Code regulations that are designed to help injured workers, the workers report that learning about their rights and responsibilities is frustrating and often humiliating, according to a report by the Labor Occupational Health Program.
Injured workers said they felt "shut out," "pushed aside" and "kept in the dark" about the claims process, said the report's authors, Juliann Sum and Laura Stock.
The workers also expressed frustration, anger and sadness at being treated in an "impersonal or condescending" manner. Ultimately, they said, the person they now trusted most to secure and evaluate information was themselves.
The report's findings, based on focus groups and interviews with workers' compensation service providers, were prepared for the state Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation. The commission adopted the findings at its Nov. 8 meeting in San Diego.
Titled "Navigating the California Workers' Compensation System: The Injured Worker's Experience," the study evaluates services intended to inform and assist injured workers in California.
A sample of workers in both Northern and Southern California was asked about the information and help they received after they were injured, what problems occurred because they didn't get correct information and whom they most trusted to get correct information.
Although some of the workers interviewed said they had positive experiences, most reported "problems in obtaining basic introductory information (and) answers to simple questions about their claims," the report said.
For example, many said they could find no one to supply information about when they could expect to receive their temporary disability payments or how much those payments would be.
They also said that the forms and documents they received -- usually in the mail -- were "technical, legalistic and difficult to understand."
Part of the problem faced by workers is the complexity of the system. Injured workers often must deal with their employers, attorneys, medical professionals, insurance companies and state agency personnel.
The report noted that the state Labor Code requires employers to provide basic introductory information about workers' compensation benefits and procedures when they hire a worker, to post the information in the workplace and to again inform the worker immediately after an injury.
But many of those in the focus groups said they received no such information. Those who did get materials found them vague or difficult to understand.
Even the state's efforts to step in and help by requiring an Information and Assistance Unit within the workers' compensation program fell far short of helping most of those interviewed.
"Workers who contacted the Information and Assistance Unit were able to obtain answers to simple questions. However, most of the focus group participants had not heard of...the unit and many who did had difficulty getting through by telephone," the report said.
Printed material required by the Labor Code, such as pamphlets in both English and Spanish that detail workers' rights to compensation, apparently have not been updated to reflect current law, the report said.
Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program is currently working on a collaborative project to design and test prototype educational materials for workers about the workers' compensation system. The work is being funded by the state Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation.