As a technician at a telecom company, Leticia Gonzalez worked at a computer for 17 years. After suffering pain and numbness in her hands and wrists, she applied for workers’ compensation, the state program that is supposed to provide medical care to injured workers. The system confirmed that her injuries were sustained on the job. Yet she was told she would receive permanent disability benefits that were 20 percent lower than what a man with the same injury would receive.
That was because “she has multiple risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, primarily age and gender.” In other words, she was awarded less money because she is a woman.
Gonzalez is one of the plaintiffs in a new class-action lawsuit in California that claims women in the state were paid less in workers’ compensation benefits because of their gender. Given the persistence of the wage gap, perhaps it’s not shocking to learn that there’s also a workers’ comp gap. But the lawsuit reveals that women are often told outright that they sustained their injuries because they are women, and therefore are ineligible for full compensation. The women involved in the lawsuit each saw their benefits reduced between 20 and 80 percent.
When it comes to employment discrimination against women, most of the focus has been on hiring, promotion, and pay. Most of us don’t know much about workers’ compensation at all — it’s among the sections of the employee manual we never take time to read. In most states, workers sign paperwork that says they agree not to sue if they’re injured on the job, and in exchange their employers agree to provide a portion of the financial compensation they need to recover. But the process is hidden away in personnel files and medical records — so far, it hasn’t been the stuff of damning reports or TED Talks. And even though white-collar workers might not think of this issue as something that they should care about, the types of desk jobs traditionally dominated by women come with their own set of physical risks, too.
The process that leads to women receiving lower workers’ compensation starts with a medical examination. Medical evaluators for workers’ comp cases are trained by the state, says Kathryn Eidmann, a staff attorney with Public Counsel who represents the women in the lawsuit, “and they’re overwhelmingly male. In some specialties, fewer than 3 percent are female.” When those evaluators recommend a compensation amount that’s lower than what a man would receive for the same injury, the justification is often that women are statistically more susceptible to injuries like carpal tunnel and joint disease.
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.
The California lawsuit seeks to eliminate all gender discrimination in the workers’ comp system. Which means it could have an effect on injured women workers in the state who aren’t part of the suit — women like Clara Sneed, who worked at the same desk for 12 years. “I noticed I was having back issues, but I was so busy I really didn’t relate it,” she said. “I had someone bring me an ergonomic chair. That didn’t seem to work. I was paying a chiropractor.” Still, she stayed on the job — and at that desk. She had worked her way through her company’s ranks for 25 years. She wasn’t about to leave her job to start at zero somewhere else. “As a black woman who made it to that level, I wasn’t gonna complain,” she says.
But the pain eventually got to be too much. She took a week off to rest, during which she was rushed to the hospital with severe back spasms. Doctors told her she could not go back to her job. On some days, the pain was so severe she could barely move. As she transitioned to workers’ compensation, she watched her salary replaced by a payment of just $110 a week after she was put on permanent disability. “We had to give up our home,” Sneed says. She became depressed after months out of work. She still has nightmares that some of her former co-workers don’t believe her injuries are real.
Sneed is not eligible to join the class-action lawsuit because she wasn’t told explicitly that gender was a reason for her low payout. But if the state agreed to stop discrimination against injured women workers, she could have more information — and possibly more protections. In addition to the prohibition on using gender as a factor in determining awards, the suit is also asking for a training program in gender bias, so that when medical examiners evaluate cases like Sneed’s, they don’t lower the reward amount because she’s a woman — whether or not that excuse shows up in the paperwork. Overall, “we hope the system will become more sensitive to the claims of injured women workers,” Eidmann says.
One reason it’s hard for women to get information about the workers’ comp is that there’s a stigma associated with it. “Workers comp for most people is a big embarrassment,” Sneed says. “True injured workers, they don’t even want to admit they’ve ever been on workers’ comp.” That leads to the persistence of outdated stereotypes about who is an injured worker — and silence around what fair compensation really looks like.
“Not only are women not receiving equal pay for equal work, they’re not receiving equal benefits,” Eidmann says. As the details of the California lawsuit make clear, gender discrimination is bigger and broader than the wage gap. It’s about all the ways in which women workers are compensated differently — both when they’re on the job, and when they’re too injured to perform it.