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Workers' compensation laws turning 100

The risk of injury is always present, in any field. What would you do if you were severely injured while at work and your employer provided no benefits to protect you? How would you pay your medical bills? How could you maintain an income if you were not employable?

Many Californians work outdoors in jobs with a high risk of injuries. The same can be said of the Midwest states in the summer. With Wisconsin weather heating up as summer approaches, construction and road work are ramping up. That's good for the pothole-weary and a chilled economy, but it also means more people will be injured in workplace accidents, unfortunately.

Workers' compensation was created to protect employees from having to ask the questions in the opening paragraph. This week, it is fitting to think about the role workers' compensation plays in our society. Governor Francis McGovern signed Wisconsin's first workers' compensation law guaranteed by the state constitution on May 3, 1911, exactly 100 years ago yesterday.

California passed its first workers' compensation law in 1911 as well, as did many other states. In California, participation was at first voluntary, but that changed two years later.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Gov. McGovern received overwhelming support from the state Senate and Assembly when he signed the Wisconsin bill into law, which was designed to provide reasonable and timely compensation to injured employees.

The law also provided for hearings if employer/employee disputes arose. Its main goal was to reduce the number of workplace accidents. The secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, in regards to those who initiated the law, says fittingly, "Wisconsin citizens justifiably take satisfaction and pride in continuing work if those imaginative and inspired men and women." The same can be said of the California law.

There is always room for improvement in the system. Too many American workers lose their lives on the job. Lawmakers in California and Wisconsin helped take their states in the right direction 100 years ago. Let's hope each state continues to adapt policies and laws to best protect their workers.

Source:, "Worker's comp law started in Wisconsin 100 years ago on May 3, 1911," Bill Novak, 3 May 2011

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