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Fitting the Pieces Together: Extraterritorial Issues in Work Comp

Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Written By
Kory Wells

by Maureen Gallagher, WorkCompEdge Contributor

In America, we have a Uniform Plumbing Code to protect the health of the nation (not to mention the sanity of plumbers and builders) and a Uniform Commercial Code enacted in all 50 states for a standard method of dealing with business law questions involving commerce. Unfortunately, no such code exists for our nation’s employers and employees for the purposes of work comp.

plumbing pipes

Knowing how the pieces fit together is especially challenging in work comp due to the lack of a national standard.

As states passed work comp laws starting in the early 1900s, each state established its unique work comp system. This resulted in a mishmash of laws, benefits, compensability and eligibility from state to state. There are many different, non-uniform work comp laws in the United States (state, territorial and federal). The state and territorial laws, which exist in every state, Puerto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands, are especially non-uniform in terms of which kinds of employments are covered, dollar amounts of wage benefits payable for different kinds and degrees of disability.

The complexity of our varied work comp system presents challenges for employers in three key areas:

  • Establishing proper coverage in jurisdictions in which the employer has operations or other jurisdictions the employer has employees working, living or traveling in
  • Understanding what jurisdiction benefits the employee can collect
  • Determining what rates (premiums) will apply. (This subject mirrors in its complexity the coverage and benefit structures of the various state and federal laws. We will briefly discuss pricing and only as it relates to extraterritorial issues).

The hodgepodge evolution of work comp laws has resulted in uneven or nonexistent uniformity across state jurisdictions, which creates challenges for employers when confronting extraterritorial issues, including questions of coverage, benefits and pricing.

Work comp coverage in various jurisdictions may depend on where workers reside, employer operations sites, licensing, and the willingness or reluctance of carriers to accept “broad” language in the work comp policy.

On the Information Page of a work comp policy, the insurance agent for the employer must have the insurance carrier list the states the employer operates in or expects to operate in at the inception of the policy. In a separate section, states are listed where an employer expects it may have employees working but the work in those states will begin after the effective date or renewal date of the policy (with some exceptions). The policy requires that the policyholder (employer) must notify the insurance company at once if the employer begins any work in any state listed in this section. Broad wording (suggested in the full article on this topic) is recommended to assure coverage in most jurisdictions even in unforeseen circumstances.

When a state is listed on the work comp policy, essentially we have attached hundreds of pages of work comp statutes and laws and thousands of pages of case law for that state. Add multiple states and I would argue that, although the basic policy is only about six pages long, the addition of statutes and case law make the work comp policy the largest and most complex policy an employer buys.

Employees working, living, traveling in or through other jurisdictions frequently present special work comp challenges including state specific time limits, variations in benefits, state law, reciprocity agreements and other issues.

To compound the challenges, work comp pricing is often driven by pressure to minimize work comp costs. This presents risks to employers as carriers may deny claims or charge some or all of a claim back to an employer. Errors in extraterritorial issues can result in devastating financial consequences to employers.

Knowing how the pieces of work comp policy and law fit together is especially challenging due to the lack of a national standard. For agents and employers, it is critical to understand each state’s work comp laws, customs and practices and, in doing so, to secure the broadest coverage possible. They also need to understand that any claim can result in a dispute as to which benefits apply as well as other extraterritorial issues. In these cases, it is best to work through these issues constructively with employees rather than engage in a standoff.


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