If you were hurt or became ill as a result of your work, you could be entitled to workers' compensation benefits, including payments for medical bills and some lost wages. As long as you're eligible, you may receive compensation regardless of who was at fault for the injury. In exchange for this protection, you lose the right to file a lawsuit against your employer for damages (except in a few situations when you can sue outside of the workers' comp system).
Typically, there are four basic eligibility requirements for workers' comp benefits:
There are special rules for some categories of employees, including domestic workers, agricultural and farm workers, casual or seasonal workers, and workers placed with an employer by temp agencies.
Let's take a closer look at the basic eligibility requirements and some of the special rules.
Generally speaking, the vast majority of employers—but not all of them—are required to have workers' compensation coverage. State laws vary, but an employer's responsibility to provide coverage generally depends on how many employees it has, the type of business it is, and the type of work employees are doing. Most states require any employer with at least one employee to have coverage, but some states set a minimum of two to five employees. A few states have different requirements for agricultural or construction businesses, and some allow charities to opt out of the workers' comp system. Texas stands out by making workers' comp coverage optional for almost all private employers (Tex. Labor Code § 406.002 (2018).)
Many employers buy workers' comp insurance even if they aren't legally required to do so. Typically, state laws allow these exempt employers to "opt in" to the workers' comp system. In that case, their employees may receive benefits for work-related injuries, but they won't be able to file a lawsuit against the employer.
Employers usually buy workers' comp insurance on the private market or, in some states, from a state fund. However, many large employers—especially state and local governments—assume the financial risk for their employees' workers' comp benefits (known as self-insurance).
The federal government has its own workers' compensation system. If you are a federal employee, you must look to that system rather than your state system for benefits. Learn more about the federal workers' compensation system. Federal law also has separate rules for compensating injured maritime workers and injured railroad workers.
Not all workers are employees when it comes to workers' compensation eligibility. In particular, independent contractors (like freelancers, consultants, or members of the "gig" economy) typically aren't entitled to workers' comp benefits. But of course, many workers—including drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services—claim that they've been misclassified as independent contractors when the hiring firm should have classified them as employees. Employers often misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying payroll taxes or workers' comp premiums. Even if you signed a 1099 tax form as an independent contractor, you might still qualify as an employee for workers' comp. But your dispute will probably end up in court. Although the rules vary from state to state, courts will generally look at the amount of control you have over your work and other details of your working relationship with the company or person that hired you.
Volunteers usually aren't entitled to workers' comp benefits, but there are some exceptions. For instance, some states specifically cover volunteer fire fighters, or they give organizations the option of covering their volunteers.
Generally speaking, if you were doing something for the benefit of your employer and were injured or became ill as a result, then it's work-related. For example, your injuries are clearly work-related if you hurt your back while loading boxes as part of your warehouse job, develop carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of typing on the job, or become ill due to exposure to hazardous chemicals at the work site. This issue may be harder to figure out in some other situations, like if you were injured during your lunch break, at a company-sponsored social event, or while horsing around with co-workers. (Learn more about the rules for deciding when injuries or illnesses are work-related.)
Even if you meet the other qualifications, you could lose your right to receive workers' comp benefits if you don't meet the deadlines in your state for reporting the injury to your employer and filing a workers' comp claim. (Learn more about workers' compensation time limits.)
Even if you meet all three of the general eligibility requirements described above, you may not qualify for workers' comp benefits if you fall into one of the categories of workers who are exempt under state law. The most common types of exempt workers include:
If your employer claims that you're not eligible for workers' comp benefits—because you're an independent contractor, you fit in one of the other exemptions, or the employer isn't required to provide coverage—you should consider consulting with a lawyer. Employers and insurance companies routinely deny valid workers' comp claims and do everything they can to limit their liability. An experienced workers' compensation attorney can help even the playing field and protect your rights.