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California’s workers’ compensation system protects employees who are injured on the job by replacing lost wages while they recover. The Division of Workers’ Compensation in the California Department of Industrial Relations (www.dir.ca.gov/dwc/dwc_home_page.htm) administers the law.

The system works as a no-fault guarantee. Employees who can show they were hurt while working are entitled to a portion of their earnings and paid medical care for the injuries suffered. They needn’t prove that their employer was negligent. In exchange for the no-fault guarantee, workers can’t sue for negligence to collect far more than just lost wages and medical payments.

Caution: California’s posting requirements on workers’ comp are among the strictest in the nation. Employers must display a poster in a conspicuous place at the work site that shows their insurance carrier and detailed instructions for reporting and treating workplace injuries. If you fail to post the notice or post false information, you’re guilty of a misdemeanor that can result in a civil penalty of up to $7,000 per violation. Further, employees who are injured in a workplace that has no poster displayed may use their own health care provider rather than those engaged by the workers’ comp system.

In some situations, employees aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation payments. For example, an employee can’t collect benefits if the injury:

  • Didn’t occur while the employee was acting within the scope of employment.
  • Wasn’t caused by the worker’s employment.
  • Was caused by the employee being intoxicated.
  • Was intentionally self-inflicted.
  • Resulted from an altercation in which the injured worker was the aggressor.
  • Occurred during the commission of a crime for which the injured worker was convicted.
  • Occurred off-duty when the employee voluntarily participated in a recreational activity.

Unlike in many other states, California employers are always responsible for the negligent actions of co-workers when they’re acting within the scope of their jobs. That means employers can’t use the so-called “fellow servant” rule as a defense.

Under California’s workers’ comp law, employers are held accountable for a variety of workplace injuries: for instance, those that occur in the common areas of the workplace, such as parking lots, driveways and entrance roads.

Virtually all California businesses must carry workers’ comp insurance. Employers that want to self-insure must apply to the Division of Workers’ Compensation for permission to do so. The state also allows employers in the same industry to pool resources to purchase coverage. Partners and sole proprietors aren’t required to carry workers’ comp coverage but may opt in to the program.

Tips for reducing workers’ comp costs

One way you can reduce your workers’ compensation costs is to encourage employees to return to work as soon as they’re able.

You can, for example, make available light-duty positions for injured employees who may not be ready to return to more demanding jobs. Work with your insurance carrier to develop a light-duty program.

ADA, FMLA and workers’ comp

Employees injured at work may also be considered disabled under the ADA or the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and have a serious medical condition under the FMLA.

So, make sure you coordinate any unpaid leave and reasonable accommodations, such as light-duty work or intermittent leave, in handling FEHA, ADA and FMLA claims with the insurance carrier. Nothing will sink a case faster than evidence that an employer acquiesced to a workers’ comp claim but denied an FMLA claim for the same condition. 
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Excerpted from California's 10 Most Critical Employment Laws, a special bonus report available to subscribers of HR Specialist: California Employment Law.

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