There’s no longer any question about the gender bias against women in California’s workers’ compensation system. The system routinely discriminates against female workers, attributing work-related injuries to the pre-existing condition of “being a woman.” Plaintiffs claim, for example, that the workers’ compensation office dismissed claims of carpal tunnel syndrome due to work-related repetitive motion as the result of breastfeeding or menopause. Male workers suffering carpal tunnel, on the other hand, received benefits for their injuries without question.
There is currently a class-action lawsuit against the California workers’ compensation system. A group of individual female workers, alongside the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California State Council, are advocating for female workers’ rights. The plaintiffs state that the workers’ compensation system decreased disability benefits for women on the basis of “risk factors” associated with their gender or capacity to reproduce.
State-appointed doctors examining a woman worker who has been injured are entitled to credit—or apportion—some of their injury to menopause and pregnancy, even if that person never felt any side effects or health problems from these conditions before their on-the-job injury, Schoenfelder said. In turn, these women receive less compensation from their employer. In other words, male workers facing certain work injuries would receive full benefits, but injured women workers would automatically have their benefits reduced if it is possible their injury results from menopause or pregnancy, even if there is no indication of these conditions.
The lawsuit holds that the state has unfairly deprived women of rightful compensation, furthering the ongoing gender wage gap in America. The goal of the lawsuit is to put an end to discriminatory practices in California’s workplace and grant the wronged women compensation for their work-related injuries. The lawsuit brings up unconstitutional reductions of disability compensation for women that occur as the result of nothing other than stereotypes against women and the female body.
Claims in the current lawsuit include women who experienced unfair compensation deprivations based on presumptions about breast cancer and assumptions based on the outdated belief that a woman’s breasts are only valuable in that they nurse children. To this end, the plaintiffs assert that workers’ compensation gives women past childbearing age $0 for breast removal, while awarding men $25,000 for prostate removal. This significant disparity is proof of California’s broken and discriminatory system.
Your insurer can’t charge you more money because you’re a woman: The Affordable Care Act bans it. Yet the same logic is being used to award women less money when they’ve been injured at work. By the state’s own estimates, 11,000 women in California are awarded lower workers’ comp benefits each year due to their gender. In other states, information is hard to come by: In New York State, for example the guide to workers' comp doesn’t mention gender at all.
One woman whose medical evaluator proved her breast cancer was work-related received zero dollars in permanent disability from the loss of her breast. California uses an American Medical Association guide to make these decisions. The victim suffered scarring, numbness, and emotional distress after the removal of her breast, yet did not receive any money for disability. Workers’ compensation awards male counterparts, on the other hand, disability benefits for work-related prostate removal. California’s workers’ comp system states that prostate removal due to work-related cancer leaves a man 16-20%.
Another plaintiff suffered reduced disability compensation because her qualified medical evaluation (QME) attributed 20% of her work-related carpal tunnel syndrome to her age and gender, stating that carpal tunnel is “almost ubiquitous” in the female population in her age bracket. Had this plaintiff been a man, she would not have suffered the 20% loss. In a similar case, a woman was pregnant when she made an appointment with her QME for work-related carpal tunnel. The QME reported her syndrome was the result of her pregnancy and breastfeeding, even though the plaintiff explained her symptoms appeared long before she was ever pregnant.
In workers’ compensation cases, gender stereotypes can cause serious damage. Women may endure financial hardship and lifelong physical, mental, and emotional damages without just compensation – all because of being born female. Women deserve awards for work-related injuries just like men do, and will continue to fight until they see a real system reform. The women involved in the class action are calling for a system-wide change, compensation for women the system has wronged in the past, and justice for future women in California’s workforce.
California’s workers’ compensation laws are long overdue for a reevaluation, and significant system changes are needed to put an end to gender discrimination. The current lawsuit may make important strides toward achieving a bias-free workers’ compensation system, but until then, California’s female workers must fight to receive equal benefits and rewards as their male counterparts.