by Les Boden

Yesterday’s Washington Post has a long story about Mercury Morris, star running back of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only undefeated team in modern NFL history. Morris’ neck was broken in a 1973 game on national television, and he has had significant physical and emotional problems ever since. He also has been fighting, unsuccessfully, for work-related disability payments for twenty years.

Given his fame, it isn’t surprising that Mercury Morris’s struggle to obtain the benefits he deserves gets newspaper coverage. Most workers with job-related disabilities are quickly forgotten, except by their families who bear the burden of taking care of them and making up for lost income. But Morris’ frustration with the system is similar in many ways to the experience of many disabled workers. Many who are disabled by job-related injuries never fully recover, at least not financially. Even though the workers’ comp system is supposed to cover medical costs and most lost wages, a study published by RAND demonstrated that injured workers and their families suffer substantial losses and that the benefits they get don’t come close to matching the losses they suffer – averaging 30% to 46% of lost earnings for workers with permanently disabling injuries.

And this doesn’t include the large number who never receive compensation at all. A recent study of Michigan workplace injuries by Ken Rosenman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan concluded that less than 2/3 of eligible injured workers received any workers’ comp benefits. Part of the reason that many never receive benefits to which they are entitled is that they face the same barriers that Mercury Morris experienced. Claims are denied, medical treatment is disapproved, payments are delayed. Injured workers experience the system as demeaning and frustrating (See: The Workers’ Compensation System: Worker Friend or Foe?). Many give up. Few of them, and few of us, have the single-mindedness and endurance of Mercury Morris.

Les Boden, PhD, is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health. Dr. Boden is a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance and has been an active member of Federal advisory committees for both the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Energy.