According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries to work in. Workers in all areas of the agricultural industry are susceptible to anything from minor injuries to fatal injuries. More than 400 agricultural workers died from work-related injuries in 2019. Statistically, the death rate is just over 19 deaths per 100,000 workers. Most of these deaths were caused by farming equipment. However, injuries from farming can also occur from things besides equipment and machinery operation. For example, the handling of livestock and exposure to chemical pesticides also places agricultural workers at a greater risk than others due to the nature of the occupation.
At the federal level, employers are required by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) to maintain a safe and healthful work environment by complying with OSHA standards. However, accidents and injuries do occur. When workers are injured on the job, they might be eligible for workers’ compensation.
What is Workers’ Compensation
Workers’ compensation is essentially a form of insurance that provides benefits and medical care to employees who were injured or became ill because of their jobs. It can pay for medical bills and lost wages. It is up to employers to provide this type of insurance. While every state creates its own workers’ compensation program, there are some common elements between them. In most cases, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy available to the employees for work-related damages. This means that, in most cases, the employers cannot be sued by the injured person or their family for any additional money.
Employers can usually choose to purchase workers’ compensation insurance through exclusive or competitive state funds, private insurance, or self-insurance. However, some states restrict where employers can purchase insurance from. With exclusive state funds, employers are only allowed to purchase workers’ compensation insurance through the government-funded state insurance fund. With competitive state funds, workers’ compensation options are composed of an open market of private insurers and state funds. This allows employers the option to choose from state or private insurers. The majority of states do not have state funds and rely on private insurers to provide workers’ compensation insurance to employers. The state regulates these private insurers in order to ensure that the legal requirements for workers’ compensation are met. Almost all states allow employers to hold their own assets to pay any required workers’ compensation as a form of self-insurance instead of using private or state fund insurance.
Whether or not someone is eligible for workers’ compensation depends on their state and the industry they work in. There are no requirements at the federal level that mandate states to have workers’ compensation laws. Nevertheless, every state, except for Texas, requires most employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. However, the majority of state workers’ compensation laws specifically exclude or limit agricultural employers from the workers’ compensation requirement.
States Requiring Workers’ Compensation
In most states with workers’ compensation laws, agriculture is an exempted occupation. Meaning that many agricultural employers are not required to have workers’ compensation coverage. Fourteen states require employers to carry workers’ compensation coverage for all agricultural workers without exception. These full coverage states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington.
Twenty-one states have limited coverage for agricultural workers. In these states, the law limits the required coverage to certain employers and workers. For example, Florida only requires agricultural employers to carry workers’ compensation if they have six or more regular employees or 12 seasonal agricultural workers who work more than 30 days in a calendar year. Illinois only requires agricultural employers to carry workers’ compensation if the total number of working days of all agricultural or aquacultural laborers employed is more than 400 per quarter of the previous calendar year. In Michigan, agricultural workers employed on a piecework basis are exempt from the workers’ compensation requirement. Some states require employers to have workers’ compensation if the agricultural worker is engaging in a specific type of activity or using hazardous farm equipment. For example, South Dakota requires coverage if the agricultural worker is using hazardous equipment such as grain combines, shredders, and cornhuskers.
Fifteen states do not require that employers carry any workers’ compensation for agricultural workers: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. In these states, it is entirely up to the employer as to whether they choose to carry worker’s compensation for the agricultural workers. If the employers elect to obtain workers’ compensation, they must follow all the requirements of that state’s workers’ compensation law.
Potential Penalties for Noncompliance
If an employer is required to carry workers’ compensation and fails to do so, they are potentially at risk of major fines, sanctions, and even jail, depending on the state they are in. For example, in California, if employers do not have workers’ compensation, it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, or a fine of at least $10,000, or both. Additionally, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement in California will issue a stop order that prohibits the use of worker labor until coverage is obtained. A second conviction of noncompliance can result in up to one year in jail, or a fine of at least $50,000, or both.
New York also imposes criminal and civil penalties for employers failing to secure coverage. The penalties in New York depend on the number of employees that the employer has. Less than five employees is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. More than five employees makes the criminal penalty a felony punishable by a fine of $5,000 to $50,000. New York also imposes a civil penalty based on the number of days without coverage. For example, for every 10-day period an employer does not have workers’ compensation insurance, they can be fined $2,000 in addition to the criminal penalties.
Failure to have workers’ compensation insurance is not the only way employers can violate their states’ law. Misrepresentation of the number of employees, misclassifying the type of work the business does, and falsely claiming employees are independent contractors are just a few ways employers can open themselves up to more criminal and civil penalties.
What Happens If a Work-Related Injury Occurs
While OSHA does not require employers to have workers’ compensation, it still sets standards for health and safety in the workplace. In the event that a serious work-related injury or illness occurs, OSHA requires employers to record it. “Work-related” is defined by OSHA as “an event or exposure in the work environment [that] either caused or contributed to the resulting condition or significantly aggravated a pre-existing injury or illness.” OSHA considers work-related injury or illnesses that result in death, loss of consciousness, medical treatment beyond first aid, diagnoses of cancer, chronic diseases, and broken bones to be serious recordable incidences. While OSHA sets the federal standards, states are free to set more restrictive standards when it comes to reporting work-related injuries. Most states require that the employer report the work-related injury to its workers’ compensation officials and the employer’s insurance carrier within a certain amount of days. New York requires that employers report the injury within 10 days of learning of the incident or before the 18th day after the incident occurred and imposes civil penalties for failing to do so.
If an employee becomes injured or ill while on the job, employers should ensure that the employee receives the proper medical care needed, calling 911 if there is an emergency. Employers and employees should thoroughly document the injury or illness with photos and medical records. Noting where and how the injury or illness occurred. Employees should officially notify their employer of the injury or illness in writing immediately. Colorado requires that employees give notice to their employers within 10 days of the incident, but every state has its own timelines. Employers should then notify their workers’ compensation insurer immediately.
In every state, there is a limited amount of time that employees have to file their workers’ compensation claim, called the statute of limitations. In many states, it is required that a claim is filed within two years of the injury or illness. However, in other states, employees only have one year to file their workers’ compensation claim. Failing to meet any of the deadlines required by the state means that employees could become ineligible for workers’ compensation.
Every state has a different approach to workers’ compensation, especially when it comes to agricultural workers. Every state has many different exemptions, requirements, and limitations. Because of that, every employer and agricultural worker should be aware of the specific rights and obligations that their state requires.
For a complete list of every state’s workers’ compensation program, click here.