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Business Owners' Guide to Workers' Compensation

David Gargaro
David Gargaro

Workers' compensation insurance is a key policy that most businesses are required to have.

Workers' compensation insurance can help to protect your business and your employees when an employee is accidentally injured on the job. Each state has its own workers' compensation laws for both employers and employees, so it's important to know how the regulations affect your business.

What is workers' compensation?

Workers' compensation is an insurance program that provides benefits to employees who become injured or ill while doing their job. The insurance covers the employee's medical costs, a portion of their lost wages while they were out of work, and their rehabilitation costs so they can return to work or find a new job.

Workers' compensation insurance also protects the employer by limiting its liability for legal claims when an employee sues the business for an illness or injury caused by work-related incidents.

What does workers' compensation cover?

Workers' compensation covers the following expenses:

  • Wages lost when an employee needs time off from work to recover from their illness or injury
  • Medical expenses incurred by the employee to treat their illness or injury
  • Vocational rehabilitation and ongoing care costs for the employee if they require care to help them return to work
  • Death benefits (e.g., funeral expenses) if the employee passes away due to a work-related incident or illness

Some insurance policies do not provide workers' compensation coverage across multiple states or when employees travel to different states. Under these circumstances, you need workers' compensation insurance in each state where your employees work. Review the best insurance providers to see what's available in your state.

Workers' compensation is a no-fault system. When an employee receives compensation for their injury or illness, they give up the right to sue their employer. However, workers' compensation will not cover your business if you purposefully harm an employee (e.g., assault, battery, fraud, defamation, emotional distress) or protect your business if your employee sues you for the following acts:

  • Gross negligence
  • Wrongful termination
  • Malicious intent
  • Discrimination
  • Failure to promote or provide bonuses

Did you know?Did you know? Some insurance policies do not provide workers' compensation coverage across multiple states or when employees travel to different states. In these cases, you need workers' compensation insurance in each state where your employees work.

Is there a cap on workers' compensation?

As with any commercial liability insurance policy, workers' compensation has a limit (or cap) on the amount a policy will pay out for a claim. However, workers' compensation limits are structured differently than other types of insurance policies. 

State governments determine which types of employers must carry workers' compensation insurance, as well as the fines for not being covered, guidelines for reporting work-related injuries and medical care requirements. Workers' compensation insurance policies provide limits on employer liability and employee benefits.

  • Employer liability: If an employee claims employer negligence, the employee can sue for damages and workers' compensation benefits. Workers' compensation would cover the employer's legal fees and pay any amount awarded by the court to the employee. The policy limits how much the insurance company will pay depending on the amount the employer chooses when purchasing the insurance.

  • Employee benefits: Workers' compensation would cover the employee's lost wages, medical expenses and rehabilitation expenses, or death benefits to their dependents. There is no limit on the employee's medical bills, but the state can impose limits on how much is paid in lost wages.

What injuries qualify for workers' compensation?

Workers' compensation covers medical costs or death benefits that result from employee injuries that occur while the employee is doing their job or acting on your behalf. Examples include injuries or illnesses related to the following:

  • Lifting or moving of boxes
  • Operation of heavy equipment
  • Repetitive motion
  • Deliveries
  • Falls or slips on a wet or icy floor
  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Burns from chemicals or hot materials
  • Violent or terrorist acts
  • Fires, floods and natural disasters

Different states exclude certain situations that can be covered by workers' compensation. Here are some examples of employee actions that would not qualify for workers' compensation:

  • Intentionally injures themselves
  • Gets injured in a fight with another employee
  • Becomes injured due to drug or alcohol intoxication
  • Gets injured or dies on the commute to work (but not in the course of doing their job)
  • Experiences emotional injury without an accompanying physical injury

How much does workers' compensation insurance cost?

In all applicable states, employers pay for workers' compensation insurance. The business pays a percentage of its total payroll costs. There are no employee payroll deductions for workers' compensation insurance.

State laws determine the details involving workers' compensation, including how much it costs. On average, it works out to $1 per $100 of payroll. Here are some factors that affect the cost of workers' compensation insurance:

  • Amount of benefits provided by insurance
  • Types of injuries or illnesses covered by insurance
  • Types of benefits and employee care provided
  • Claims history
  • Risk level of different employees and industries
  • Workers' compensation class codes

Reducing workers' compensation insurance costs

Here are some ways employers can reduce their workers' compensation insurance costs:

  • Evaluating and improving the safety of their work environment by checking equipment safety, repairing or replacing defective equipment, providing employees with safety gear, and supplying offices with ergonomic equipment
  • Training employees on workplace safety, providing tips on best practices and offering incentives for accident-free work
  • Helping injured employees return to their roles more quickly
  • Creating an employee wellness program to promote healthy living and fitness

Do employers have to carry workers' compensation?

Most businesses with one or more employees require some form of insurance (except Texas, where workers' compensation is optional). Whether your business and employees require this insurance will depend on the type of business and status of your employees. Each state has its own rules on what is covered, how it evaluates different issues, how injured employees receive medical care and which benefits an employee can receive.

The following types of employees are likely to be exempt from the workers' compensation insurance requirement:

  • Family members who are employees
  • Part-time employees
  • Volunteers
  • Government employees
  • Commissioned employees
  • Independent contractors
  • Domestic workers in private homes
  • Some types of real estate agents and insurance professionals
  • Farm workers
  • Maritime workers
  • Railroad employees

How to get workers' compensation

Businesses can purchase workers' compensation insurance from state-funded programs or private insurance companies. Each state determines its workers' compensation policy requirements. When you purchase a policy, provide the following information so the insurance provider can determine your coverage and costs:

  • Total number of employees
  • Number of employees requiring coverage
  • Type of work each employee performs
  • Total payroll

How to file a workers' compensation claim

When an employee becomes injured or ill on the job, the first task is to make sure the employee receives proper medical treatment. This may include calling an ambulance to take the injured or ill employee to the hospital.

The employer and employee have a limited amount of time (usually between 10 and 90 days) to submit the paperwork that's required for the employee to receive workers' compensation benefits. The process for filing varies from state to state. However, if the claim is not filed within the required time, the claim can be denied.

When an employee is injured, the employer must do the following:

  • Provide the employee with the required paperwork for reporting the workers' compensation cla
  • Provide directions on how to file for workers' compensation
  • File the insurance claim with the insurance company
  • Report the employee's injuries as required by state law

The employer must also provide the employee with information on their rights and workers' compensation benefits, as well as the procedure for returning to work.

After the illness or injury occurs, the employee must take the following steps:

  • Inform the employer in writing of the details relating to the injury or illness (e.g., date, time, type of injury or illness, how it occurred)
  • File the formal workers' compensation paperwork for a claim. In some cases, the employer is responsible for filing the paperwork for the workers' compensation insurance carrier. However, the employee's healthcare practitioner will also submit a medical report.

TipTip: The employer and employee have a limited amount of time (usually between 10 and 90 days) to submit the paperwork that's required for the employee to receive workers' compensation benefits.

Information to include in a claim

A workers' compensation claim should include the following information:

  • Company information (e.g., company name, account number and location, policy number)
  • Injured employee's personal information (e.g., name, date of birth, age, address, phone number, Social Security number)
  • Details of the work-related incident (e.g., date, type of injury or illness, cause of injury or illness, estimated number of work days lost, expected return date, witnesses' information)

How long do workers' compensation claims take?

The time required to complete a workers' compensation claim depends on state requirements, the time needed to investigate the claim and other factors. Once the employer files the claim, the insurance provider must determine whether to approve or reject the claim.

If the insurance provider approves the claim, the company will provide the affected employee with payment details. The insurance provider can deny the claim if the claim does not qualify for workers' compensation benefits. The rest of the workers' compensation process involves the employee, legal representation, medical professionals and insurance provider.

  • If the insurance provider approves the claim, the employee can opt to accept the offer to pay their lost wages, medical bills, and medicine and disability payments, or negotiate a lump-sum settlement or structured settlement.
  • If the insurance provider denies the claim, the employee can opt to appeal the decision or ask the insurance provider to review their decision.
Image Credit: Drazen Zigic / Getty Images
David Gargaro
David Gargaro
business.com Contributing Writer
David Gargaro is a content writer and copy editor with more than 20 years of experience in multiple industries, including publishing, advertising, marketing, finance, and small business. He has written on B2B-focused topics covering business technology, sales, marketing, and insurance. David has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Actuarial Science from the University of Toronto. He served as the managing editor of a small publishing company, and self-published a book called How to Run Your Company… Into the Ground.