Health Labor Rights

Lawsuit Targets Gender Discrimination in Workers’ Compensation

Three California women and the Service Employees International Union California State Council filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday that accuses the state’s workers’ compensation system of explicit and unfair gender bias.

The suit, Page et al. v. Parisotto et al., focuses on two aspects of the California workers’ compensation program, which provides financial and medical compensation to workers who are injured on the job, including temporary and permanent benefits for employees suffering from a work-related disability and who are in need of medical care.

The suit alleges that women workers are routinely awarded smaller disability payments than men for permanent work related disabilities as a result of program policies that essentially treat being a woman as a pre-existing medical condition. In part, the complaint reads “California’s system of workers’ compensation perpetuates the type of overt sex discrimination that is a relic of a past era….It deprives women workers of fair compensation on the basis of stereotypes about gender and women’s reproductive biology.”

One of the plaintiffs in the case developed nerve damage and carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes chronic pain in the arms and hands, as a result of her job at a telecommunications company. She was awarded permanent disability benefits from the state, but they were less than what a man in her position would have received because the medical professional who examined her concluded that 20% of her disability could be attributed to “non-industrial factors,” such as the fact that carpal tunnel syndrome is common in women of her age. Another plaintiff who was also diagnosed with carpal tunnel alleges that a medical examiner attributed her symptoms to her recent pregnancy and the fact that she was breast-feeding, even though the symptoms started before she became pregnant.

The second aspect of the case concerns the state’s refusal to consider the loss of a breast for a woman over child-bearing age after a mastectomy to be a permanent disability worthy of compensation. Men of any age who require prostate removal surgery as a result of work-related prostate cancer are awarded $2500 in compensation.

The suit aptly states that by condoning this sexist system, “the State of California sends a clear message that women’s work is worth less.” The lawsuit accuses the workers’ compensation system of violating the Equal Protections clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and is the first of its kind in the nation.

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