As we noted in a previous post, the concept of workers’ compensation dates back some 4,000 years. Considering the expanse of time the concept has been around, it might surprise some readers to learn that workers’ compensation in New York State has existed for only slightly more than 100 years.
This past week, New York State marked the 107th anniversary of the event that spurred New York workers’ compensation law. In this post, we look back to the origins of the state system, which is meant to ensure benefits of medical treatment, rehabilitation, and financial support to workers injured on the job.
Fire in a clothing factory
In our earlier post, we observed a historic record of workers’ compensation goes back to the ancient Sumerians. The concept of workers’ compensation began to resurface again with the birth of the Industrial Revolution. The seeds of New York State’s no-fault coverage for injury took root in law in the early 20th century, but only after legal struggles and a horrific industrial tragedy.
New York first passed a workers’ compensation statute in 1910, but organized labor fought the measure in court, and an appeals court declared the law unconstitutional in 1911.
Tragically, only one day after the decision, 146 young women died in what is reported to be the worst factory fire in the history of New York City, now known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The employer had more than 500 workers on three floors of the 10-story building. The doors leading to the exits were kept locked in order to keep the workers at their sewing machines. With locked exit doors and the reams of fabric contained within the rooms, the fire spread quickly and within 20 minutes, 146 workers were dead, either by fire or by jumping to their deaths.
Thereafter, the New York legislature amended the state constitution to allow for laws “for the protection of the lives, health, or safety of employees” and the New York state workers’ compensation law was born. Since then, it has evolved to meet shifting demands.
Benefits yes, lawsuits no
The underlying precept of the law is what some call “The Great Trade Off” or “The Grand Bargain.” Before the workers’ compensation law, injured workers had to sue their employers; it took years, was prohibitively expensive and offered no compensation or treatment while the lawsuit was going on. Employers had skyrocketing liability coverage and large damages to pay if an injured workers’ case made it through litigation and won.
With “The Great Trade Off,” workers sacrificed their right to sue their employers for damages in order to obtain a no-fault method of prompt and definable benefits to be paid and provided after a work accident. Employers were guaranteed a monetary limit for payments at a fixed rate and could rely on predictable costs and reduced labor strife.
The system still has shortcomings. For example, employers and insurers with greater financial resources continue to steer the course of workers’ compensation in directions that benefit them. But there are experienced attorneys who stand ready to advocate on behalf of individual workers to make sure the workers get the benefits they are entitled to.