“Hurting for Work”

The Texas Tribune
June 29, 2014

2014 Silver Showcase Award Winner – Judges’ Comments: Workers’ compensation is one of those obscure issues in life that, thankfully, few of us ever have to face. Those who don’t may be under the assumption that the protection will be there if it is needed. The Texas Tribune’s extensive series on workers’ compensation disabuses the reader of such a notion. The stories were compelling and the victims’ often tragic situations seem more representative than they should be. Some victims such as undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, but the Tribune’s reporting shows that the insurance companies’ “scorched earth” approaches affect others like the family of a manager of a national fast-food chain who was killed in an accident in a company car.  Much has been made about the strength of the Texas economy – the so-called “Texas Miracle”; this series exposes weak links in the system that has vexed policymakers and employees for some time.

Submission:

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The Texas Tribune’s four-part “Hurting for Work” investigation exposed gaping holes in the workers’ compensation system in Texas, where a booming economy is adding jobs at a nation-leading pace that has the state’s top elected officials touting a “Texas Miracle.”

Behind this robust growth are the workers on whose backs this “Miracle” is being built — and they’re rarely the beneficiaries of it.

Among our project’s findings: Texas leads the nation in worker fatalities. It’s the only state in the union that doesn’t require private employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. More than 90 percent of those employers ignore a law requiring them to notify the state that they’ve opted out of providing such coverage. And even when injured employees in Texas are lucky enough to have workers’ compensation coverage, almost half of their claims are initially denied or disputed by the state — and their odds of success are worsening.

The result? More than half a million Texas workers have no insurance against injury or death on the job, leaving them and their families helpless in the face of devastating workplace accidents. Another 1.27 million Texans have private insurance plans that fall short of the state’s standards, and routinely tie injured workers and their relatives up in costly court battles.

Our reporters, photographers and videographers told astonishing and gut-wrenching stories, from the immigrant construction worker left quadriplegic and penniless after falling several stories through a roof, to the young widow sued along with her toddler children by a workers’ compensation insurer over the benefits she fought for after her husband was killed in a work-related auto accident.

Work on the series, which was led by investigative reporter Jay Root, took place over more than six months, and involved more than a dozen Tribune staffers, including data crunchers, designers and developers who built interactive tools to help visualize Texas’ worker woes and present the tales in a rich, elegant, respectful way.

Newspapers and TV stations across the state published elements of the series by way of our free syndication agreement, and we developed several special segments in Spanish for Univision, which aired Hurting for Work statewide and translated all of our stories into Spanish for both our and their readers.

The series had immediate effects: After our reporters discovered that the state-mandated 24-hour worker safety hotline was anything but around-the-clock, officials immediately corrected the years-old oversight. Following our story of the young widow sued alongside her children over her dead husband’s benefits, the insurer immediately dropped the lawsuit.

Beyond those rapid remedies, the Tribune is keeping the conversation alive — demanding answers from legislators heading into the 2015 session, covering state hearings where the chorus of worker stories is getting louder, and publishing an invitation to readers to contact us with their stories, or the stories of those they’ve lost.

LINK to story online

Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.