The Texas Tribune’s four-part “Hurting for Work” investigation exposed gaping holes in the workers’ compensation system in Texas, where a booming economy is adding jobs at a nation-leading pace that has the state’s top elected officials touting a “Texas miracle.”
Behind this robust growth, however, are the workers on whose backs this “miracle” has been built — and they’re rarely the beneficiaries of it.
Among our project’s findings: Texas leads the nation in worker fatalities. It is the only state in the union that doesn’t require private employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. More than 90 percent of those employers ignore a law requiring them to notify the state that they’ve opted out of providing such coverage. And even when injured employees in Texas are lucky enough to have workers’ compensation coverage, almost half of their claims are initially denied or disputed by the state — and their odds of success are worsening.
The result? More than half a million Texas workers have no insurance against injury or death on the job, leaving them and their families helpless in the face of devastating workplace accidents. Another 1.27 million Texans have private insurance plans that fall short of the state’s standards, and routinely tie injured workers and their relatives up in costly court battles.
Our reporters, photographers and videographers told astonishing and gut-wrenching stories, from the immigrant construction worker left quadriplegic and penniless after falling several stories through a roof, to the young widow sued alongside her two toddler children by a workers’ compensation insurer over the benefits she fought for after her husband was killed in a work-related auto accident.
Work on the series, which was led by investigative reporter Jay Root, took place over more than six months, and involved more than a dozen Tribune staffers, including data crunchers, designers and developers who built interactive tools to help visualize Texas’ worker woes and present the tales in a rich, elegant and respectful way.
Newspapers and TV and radio stations across the state published elements of the series by way of our free syndication arrangement, and we developed several special segments in Spanish with Univision, which aired “Hurting for Work” in Texas and translated all of our stories into Spanish for both our and their readers. Root, a fluent Spanish speaker, appeared on Univision repeatedly over the course of the series to discuss the struggles facing immigrant workers injured in Texas.
The series had immediate effects. Following our package on the young widow sued alongside her children over her dead husband’s benefits — a story picked up by news organizations across the state — the insurer immediately dropped the lawsuit and restored full benefits to the family. After our reporters discovered that the state-mandated 24-hour worker safety hotline was anything but around-the-clock, officials immediately acknowledged their error and reversed course.
Beyond those rapid remedies, the Tribune has kept the conversation alive — demanding answers from lawmakers heading into the 2015 legislative session, covering state hearings where the chorus of worker stories is growing louder, and publishing an invitation to readers to contact us with their stories, or the stories of those they’ve lost.
Root has kept the pressure on, too: In the fall, his reporting revealed that the state’s workers’ compensation division has not kept racial statistics on injured workers for several years, despite a 1993 law that requires data on the race and gender of every injury claim in order to prevent discrimination. The state is currently fighting the Tribune’s request for records that could shed light on why it has failed to collect such data.
Tribune reporters continue to dig beneath Texas’ idealized economic record, exposing injury and injustice, and ensuring that those who have put their lives and livelihoods on the line get their due.