Public Counsel

A group of women joined forces with the SEIU union on Wednesday to file a class action lawsuit against the state of California for systemic gender discrimination in its workers’ compensation system. The suit is the first of its kind in the United States.

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At issue are “permanent disability benefits” for workers who experience physical losses or reduced earning capacity caused by on-the-job injuries. (Think firefighters, police officers or any other jobs that can expose you to harmful conditions or chemicals.) These benefits are often the only compensation available to these employees.

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The plaintiffs alleged that their compensation awards are often dramatically decreased simply because of their gender. According to the class action complaint, “women’s permanent disability benefits are routinely reduced because women’s injuries are ‘apportioned’— that is, attributed in part… of the female gender or women’s reproductive biology.”

Instead of blaming an injury on the injury itself, and giving equal compensation to both men and women, companies and Qualified Medical Examiners blame these injuries on the inherent attributes of being a woman, the suit alleges.

Leticia Gonzalez is one of the plaintiffs. Having worked as a technician at a telecommunications company since 1998, Gonzalez spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week working on a computer for 17 years. Over time she began experiencing discomfort in her hands and shoulders from the repetitive motions of data entry and mouse use. The pain grew so bad that she was unable to sleep for more than 4-5 hours a night and could no longer perform many self-care activities or work-related duties. In 2014, a Qualified Medical Examiner (QME) diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome and neuropathy. The examiner stated that “these injuries were caused by the physical demands of her occupation,” concluding that she was entitled to permanent disability benefits.

Leticia Gonzalez
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However, despite this ruling, the QME also apportioned 20% of her disability to “non-industrial factors,” concluding “she has multiple risk factors for carpal tunnel syndrome, primarily age and gender,” and noting that “carpal tunnel compression and neuropathy is almost ubiquitous in the female population in her age demographic.” (Emphasis added.)

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Other women found that even work-induced breast cancer led to unequal permanent disability benefits—including women working as firefighters and peace officers, where “cancer rates are higher” because of uncontrollable chemical exposure.

“If a woman is past childbearing age undergoes a double mastectomy due to work-induced breast cancer, the system presumes that she is entitled to no permanent disability benefits for the loss of her breasts,” the synopsis of the suit states, “[even though] prostate cancer is assigned a sustainably higher 16-20% disability rating.”

This is what happened to Janice Page, the suit claims. After working in law enforcement and being exposed to numerous carcinogenic toxins for 26 years, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Though the QME determined the breast cancer was caused solely by work-related exposures to cancer causing carcinogens, Page was nevertheless granted a 0% disability rating. In other words, she received no benefits. The reason? She was a woman who is “no longer of childbearing age.”

Janice Page
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The plaintiffs want the court to have California take steps to reform the workers’ compensation system. These could include new training for employees and a beefed-up system of monitoring, accountability and discipline.

You can find more information on the suit here.