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The Grand Bargain: Delving into the Evolution of Workers’ Compensation

02 Aug, 2023 Claire Muselman

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Part One of a Three-Part Series

Phoenix, AZ – Earlier this year, the Workers' Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) served as the backdrop for a comprehensive and illuminating presentation on the evolution of workers' compensation. Presented by Price V. Fishback, a Ph.D. holder from the University of Arizona, the discourse explored the multifaceted journey of workers' compensation from its nascent stages to its present state. Fishback's exposition particularly zeroed in on the shifts that the system has undergone and raised thought-provoking questions on the sustainability of the workers' compensation structure as we currently know it.

The Grand Bargain: The Genesis of Workers' Compensation

At the heart of Fishback's presentation was the origin of the workers' compensation (WC) system, an arrangement often referred to as the Grand Bargain. The Grand Bargain was introduced as a shift from the prevailing negligence liability to a system of strict liability for all workplace accidents. This revolutionary development aimed to provide a more efficient and streamlined administrative process and increase the proportion of accidents that received compensation.

Before the establishment of the Grand Bargain, the onus was on the employers to fully compensate for an accident only under certain conditions:

--> A fellow worker did not cause the accident.
--> The worker involved in the accident did not contribute to the negligence.
--> The worker was not cognizant of the inherent risk.

Legal proceedings were arduous, and with the system skewing heavily in favor of employers, approximately 50% of fatal accidents and many nonfatal accidents did not receive compensation. 

The Grand Bargain provided an alternative, presenting a trade-off where compensation of up to two-thirds of a worker's weekly wage would be provided for up to five to six years in the event of fatal and long-term disabilities. However, these payments were capped by certain weekly maximums. This new approach increased overall accident compensation and ushered in a more seamless administrative process.

A Pivotal Shift for All Stakeholders

Fishback's presentation highlighted the period between 1880 and 1910, marked by relentless efforts to eliminate the three defenses that prevented employers from being held liable for accidents. The relationship between trade unions and state legislatures was characterized by mistrust, with the unions only warming up to WC in 1909, led by the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Railroads, however, took a different path. They abolished the defenses but retained negligent liability. This was governed by the Federal Employer Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908, laws that continue to oversee the industry today.

The Grand Bargain was a windfall for the majority of the involved parties. The new arrangement offered employers a shield against the uncertainties of potential lawsuit verdicts. The peace and tranquility that permeated labor relations was a bonus. Workers found themselves on the receiving end of higher post-accident payments, with their wages largely unaffected. The Grand Bargain presented a business opportunity for insurers as they could sell more insurance unless a state fund were established.

However, the transformation was not without its fair share of contentious debates. The details of the Grand Bargain led to disagreements, particularly around weekly maximum benefits, waiting periods, and state insurance.

A Catalyst for Social Welfare Expansion

Dr. Fishback described the introduction of WC as a seminal event in states' expansion of social welfare spending. Between 1911 and 1948, the system was wholly administered by state programs. State programs laid a robust foundation for launching other welfare initiatives like Mothers' Pensions, Aid to the Blind, Old-Age Assistance, and Unemployment Insurance. 

However, the path of WC evolution was strewn with obstacles. The system had to grapple with long-term trends such as the expansion of covered workers, reduced accident risk within industries, shifts to less dangerous industries, and the inclusion of occupational diseases under its purview. After the 1970s, a fundamental change was implemented, tying the maximums to the state weekly wage. But along with these progressive changes came challenges, including escalating medical costs, system gaming from both sides (fraud and moral hazard), and difficulties in the administrative process such as access, determining the extent of injury, and measuring claimants' weekly wages.

Dr. Fishback further dissected these trends and their implications, thereby offering a more nuanced understanding of the current state of Workers' Compensation. Stay tuned for more insights into this pivotal aspect of worker rights and employer responsibilities.

Anticipate the second part of our extensive coverage of Dr. Fishback's presentation, which will unravel the complexities of the Workers' Compensation system and its potential trajectory in the future. The future trajectory continues to be a significant area of interest for all stakeholders – employers, employees, policymakers, and insurers, promising a series of enlightening discussions and revelations.

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    About The Author

    • Claire Muselman

      Meet Dr. Claire C. Muselman, the Chief Operating Officer at, where she blends her vast academic insight and professional innovation with a uniquely positive energy. As the President of DCM, Dr. Muselman is renowned for her dynamic approach that reshapes and energizes the workers' compensation industry. Dr. Muselman's academic credentials are as remarkable as her professional achievements. Holding a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University, she specializes in employee engagement, human behavior, and the science of leadership. Her diverse background in educational leadership, public policy, political science, and dance epitomizes a multifaceted approach to leadership and learning. At Drake University, Dr. Muselman excels as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Co-Director of the Master of Science in Leadership Program. Her passion for teaching and commitment to innovative pedagogy demonstrate her dedication to cultivating future leaders in management, leadership, and business strategy. In the industry, Dr. Muselman actively contributes as an Ambassador for the Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation and plays key roles in organizations such as Kids Chance of Iowa, WorkCompBlitz, and the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance, underscoring her leadership and advocacy in workers’ compensation. A highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Muselman inspires professionals with her engaging talks on leadership, self-development, and risk management. Her philosophy of empathetic and emotionally intelligent leadership is at the heart of her message, encouraging innovation and progressive change in the industry. "Empowerment is key to progress. By nurturing today's professionals with empathy and intelligence, we're crafting tomorrow's leaders." - Dr. Claire C. Muselman

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