To receive workers' compensation benefits for a work-related injury or illness, you must file a workers' comp claim within certain a certain period of time. Each state's law (or U.S. law for employees in the federal workers' comp program) sets the deadlines for filing claims, reporting the injury directly to your employer, and other matters related to your workers' comp case. Those deadlines can be quite different from state to state (as discussed below). But the bottom line is, the sooner the better.
After you've been injured at work, or you discover you have a medical condition caused by workplace conditions, you should report the injury or illness to your employer right away. Make it clear that you were hurt on the job. Some state laws simply say that you should give this notice immediately or as soon as practical, but most states give a more specific deadline, usually within 10 to 90 days. In many states, however, it won't count against you if you didn't make a written report, as long as your employer actually knew about the injury.
After you report your injury or illness, you'll usually have to file a workers' comp claim with the state workers' comp agency (although your employer may take care of this step in some states). The deadlines for filing claims are typically in the range of one to three years after the injury. But some states allow even more time. In Wisconsin, for example, the deadline is six years from the date of a sudden injury, but there's no time limit for certain serious injuries like permanent brain damage (Wis. Stat. § 102.17(4) (2020)). If you employer provided some medical benefits before you filed a claim, the time period for filing may not start until those benefits stop.
Many states include a few limited exceptions to the time limits for filing claims, including when the injured employee couldn't file a claim right away because:
For benefits under the federal workers' comp program (mostly for employees of the U.S. government), injured employees must file a claim within three years after the injury. However, compensation may still be allowed if the employee gave written notice of the injury (or the immediately supervisor knew about it) within 30 days. (5 U.S.C. § 8122 (2020).)
The time period of filing a workers' comp claim may be stretched out considerably for occupational diseases (illnesses that result from workplace conditions) or cumulative trauma (injuries that develop over time from work activities, such as repetitive strain or stress injuries). Often, state law requires that you report the claim within a certain period of time after the last "injurious exposure" (such as exposure to asbestos or to the coronavirus) or after you first learned that your condition could be related to your employment. In California, for example, you must file a claim within one year after the date of injury. But in the case of an occupational disease or cumulative injury, the injury date is when you first experienced disability (often when you missed work or had to get medical treatment) and you knew or should've known it was caused by work. (Cal. Labor Code § 5412 (2020).)
Don't hesitate to file a claim even if your workplace injury seems mild or moderate at first. It could get worse later, as often happens with back conditions. If you file a claim and the condition improves on its own, the claim will simply close—no harm done. But if you wait to file, you could lose the chance to get workers' comp benefits after it gets worse and you realize that you need to miss work and get medical treatment.
If you had a previous workers' comp claim that was closed, but your medical condition has gotten worse, you have a certain period of time (often three to five years) to request that your claim be reopened in order to start receiving benefits again.
There are also deadlines for submitting bills to your employer for coverage of medical treatment, so make sure your doctor knows you're receiving treatment under a workers' comp claim. Your doctor will then be able to correctly bill your employer or its workers' compensation insurance carrier. (Know that most states have rules for seeking medical treatment and choosing a treating doctor in workers' comp cases.)
A lawyer experienced in workers' compensation in your area is your best resource for knowing the deadlines that apply to your situation. Your attorney will ensure that you meet all of the deadlines, so that bad timing alone won't keep you from receiving the workers' comp benefits you entitled to receive.
If your employer has told you that you are too late to file a workers' comp claim, you should consult with an attorney to learn whether this is true, and whether there are any exceptions to the deadlines or legal alternatives to pursuing workers' comp benefits.