Today a group of women workers and the Public Counsel, Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC, Equal Rights Advocates, and Professor Catherine Fisk of the University of California, Irvine School of Law against the California filed a first-of-its-kind, a statewide class action lawsuit challenging systemic gender discrimination in California’s workers’ compensation system.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, exposes overt gender bias and discrimination against working women injured on the job by revealing a shocking pattern of reduced permanent disability benefits to women workers solely on the basis of their gender. The suit also challenges the egregiously low workers’ compensation benefits afforded to women with work-induced breast cancer.
“[California’s workers’ compensation] system sides with insurance companies and employers, letting them off the hook for workplace injuries to female employees and contributing to the impoverishment of women workers and their families. Women workers in California neither receive equal pay for equal work nor equal payouts when they’re injured on the job,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney in Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law Project.
For 17 years, plaintiff Leticia Gonzalez spent eight hours a day, five days a week, working on a computer in order to carry out her job duties as a telecommunications worker. After years of pain and numbness in her hands and wrists that affected her sleep, self-care and work, the workers’ compensation system confirmed that Leticia’s injuries were caused by the physical demands of her occupation. However, the state’s Qualified Medical Examiner (QME) reduced the permanent disability benefits to which she was entitled to 20% because, “she has multiple risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, primarily age, and gender.”
The complaint also documents the irrational undervaluation of breast cancer by the system. If a woman past child-bearing age undergoes a mastectomy due to work-induced breast cancer-an, all-too-common occurrence for female firefighters and peace officers, the system presumes that she is entitled to zero permanent disability benefits for the loss of her breasts. In contrast, prostate cancer is assigned a substantially higher 16-20% disability rating.
“The loss of my breast has been devastating. I carry the same weight on my duty belt as my male colleagues, confront the same dangers, work just as hard, and it is not fair for me and my female peace officers to be penalized because of our gender,” said Sgt. Janice Page, a plaintiff in the case who received a zero percent disability rating for work-induced breast cancer. In her duties as a law enforcement officer, Sgt. Page was exposed to numerous carcinogenic toxins, including vehicle fires, ammunition, exhaust fumes, gasoline, diesel fuels, structure fires, and narcotics. She underwent five surgeries and the removal of her right breast and continues to experience numbness on her right side.
Permanent disability benefits are the only compensation available to workers for losses to future earning capacity, physical integrity and personal well-being that result from most on-the-job injuries. The lawsuit asks the court to root out and eliminate gender discrimination in the workers’ compensation system, including by training employees and implementing a system of monitoring, accountability, and discipline.
“Gender discrimination in California’s workers’ compensation system is a systemic problem, not an isolated occurrence, said Anne Hudson-Price, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “The medical evaluators making these determinations are overwhelmingly male, yet the State provides no guidance or training to address and eliminate sex discrimination.”
“By permitting and condoning the distribution of workers’ compensation benefits on the basis of sex, the State is sending a clear message that women’s work is worthless,” said Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, Staff Attorney at Equal Rights Advocates. “This message denigrates the contributions of women to the workplace and perpetuates the unequal status of women.”
For more information on the case and to view the legal documents, visit www.workerscomppaygap.org.
Organizations mentioned/involved: Public Counsel