I received a question earlier this week via email that represented a profound reality for the workers' compensation industry. It was related to Kids' Chance, the organization that provides scholarships and education opportunities to children of a parent who has been seriously injured or killed on the job. The question came from one of the Ambassadors for Kids' Chance of Florida, for which I currently serve as president. They asked me, “Would an unborn (but conceived) child of a fatally injured worker qualify as a potential KC recipient?”
I quickly typed out a response, telling them I imagine that the child would be considered eligible given those circumstances. I found out in subsequent emails that the query was more than theoretical; it was a scenario playing out in a Florida city right now. I recommended the family be given information about Kids' Chance of America's “Planning for the Future” program. And I thought I was done with it. But I found myself returning to that email several times through the morning, and staring at that question:
Would an unborn (but conceived) child of a fatally injured worker qualify as a potential KC recipient?
It was a question that made my heart heavy, not just for a child and father who will never experience the joy of knowing one another, but for the awesome burden our industry bears in such situations; a burden we are largely unprepared to meet. A child conceived, but not yet born, has already suffered one of the worst catastrophe's imaginable in the loss of a parent due to a workplace accident. Yet, the processes of workers' compensation aren't really geared to pay attention to that child, or the mother who will bear him. Certainly, there are death benefits available, but in Florida it is not much. Funeral expenses are capped at $7,500, and indemnity benefits may be paid up to a rate of 66 2/3 of the deceased's Average Weekly Wage (AWW) (varies based on dependents; a childless spouse only gets 50% of AWW), not to exceed an overall cap of $150,000. That is not much to raise a family on, and it certainly won't put a kid through college.
Oh, and in Florida, that unborn child does not exist in the eyes of the law until it is born, so if the case is adjudicated prior to birth there will be no benefits for him or her. The mother may petition for additional benefits afterwards. For that child (once born) she can be paid 16 2/3 of her deceased spouses AWW, as long as total benefits paid does not surpass 66 2/3 of AWW, and of course, subject to that overall $150K cap. That certainly sounds all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?
And what of the emotional cost and needed support? Are we as an industry prepared to offer compassion, sympathy and emotional care? Or is the family simply a number that must be dealt with as per statute and then closed with the claim? Can we do better? Should we?
I thank God that the Kids' Chance organization has flourished so rapidly in the last few years, and for the thousands of dedicated workers' compensation supporters and volunteers that are so willing to make the education dreams of so many kids' come true. I take solace knowing that a person sitting in my chair 18 years from now will be able to make a difference for this child who is yet to be born. But 18 years is a long time. That child and their family will have to navigate much of that journey on their own. Our system is not designed to be there for them.
It's a shame that there is not a bridge program designed to precede the activities of Kids' Chance. For these types of death claims it would be nice if we had volunteers, similar to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, who understand the unique challenges of work injury victims and could be available for guidance and support to young families who need the help. It could even be an EAP style program for the recently widowed and their kids. 18 years is a long time, and workers' comp is just not geared to be there for the long haul in these cases. That makes the challenges for the unborn and newly born victims of workplace fatalities all the more poignant.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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