Origins and History of Colorado Workers’ Compensation Laws

Colorado’s workers’ compensation laws didn’t magically appear one day out of thin air. Many years of trial and error, thought and effort went into producing a system to compensate workers for on-the-job injuries.

Workers’ compensation laws were what the Rocky Mountain Law Review put as “the first great venture into social security by the people of America” and the first social safety net – around long before the institution of Social Security and unemployment insurance.

Before workers’ compensation in Colorado and the U.S., injured workers had to prove negligence on the part of the employer or a fellow employee before compensation was awarded…or in attorney lingo a “common law” remedy.

Much of the case law prior to the enactment of Colorado workers’ compensation reflects thinking from a different time.  For example, an injured railroad worker in 1898 dislocated his shoulder and broke his upper arm and was not allowed to see a doctor for 17 days. Colorado’s Supreme Court reversed the decision of a lower court, saying the employer was not negligent because the worker’s injuries were not life threatening.

The failure of common law remedies to protect employees from on-the-job injuries eventually led public sentiment to demand an administrative system of workers’ compensation.

So what did the Colorado workers’ compensation law establish and how has it evolved into our present day system?

The goal of workers’ compensation laws in Colorado and across the U.S. was to shift the economic burden of an on-the-job injury from the employee to the industry and thus, the consumers of products and services of that industry.

Rationale for the system benefits both the employer and the employee. An injured employee no longer had to worry about being financially or emotionally ruined by an on-the-job injury, regardless of fault. Workers’ compensation offers a more dignified means of support during recovery, designed to provide injured workers a fixed, reliable source of income during a disability.

In the beginning, a worker had to be disabled for at least 3 weeks to receive wage loss, or temporary disability benefits. An injured worker would receive either 50% of their average weekly wage or the maximum allowance of $8 per week. Today, they receive 2/3 of their average weekly wage or a maximum allowance of 91% of the state’s average weekly wage.

In exchange, the employer enjoys limited liability – workers’ compensation wage loss benefits for example are limited in their amount. Insured employers are exempted from all common law liability, meaning they cannot be sued for liability of an on-the-job injury.

Limited liability extends beyond just being sued. Colorado workers’ compensation laws are quite explicit in the things they pay for. Injured workers receive no separate compensation for pain and suffering. In fact, if the law doesn’t provide compensation for a particular injury, a worker cannot be compensated for it.

Over the course of the 20th century though different compensable injuries have been added to what Colorado workers’ compensation covers. In the early years of the system, injured workers only received compensation for “personal injury or death accidentally sustained.” But in 1945, a list of 21 compensable occupational diseases was introduced and remained in effect until 1975 when it was replaced by a general statutory definition that’s still in use to this day.

Other changes to the Colorado workers’ compensation have occurred over the years, mainly minor adjustments to statutory definitions, compensation formulas and amounts. The General Assembly has also made adjustments to who is required to cover their employees - at first, businesses with fewer than 4 employees, private servants and farm and ranch labor were exempt from coverage. Now, Colorado workers’ compensation laws require all employers provide coverage unless they’re specifically exempted. (Even if they are, they can voluntarily agree to be subject to them.)

Where did the idea of an administrative, no-fault workers’ compensation system come from and when did states in the U.S. begin implementing one?

Nations across Europe were the first to establish a system to compensate workers injured on-the-job. Germany pioneered the first system in 1884 followed by Austria, Norway, Finland, England, France, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Russia.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was the only industrialized nation without such a system. By 1911, 11 states had instituted workers’ compensation by creating a new legal concept of liability without consideration of fault. New York, Kentucky, Montana and Massachusetts are a few of the first states to institute an administrative system to compensate injured workers.

Colorado’s workers’ compensation law took effect on August 1, 1915 and while it’s not perfect and requires constant monitoring and reform, injured workers are by and large able to obtain the medical and compensation benefits they need to deal with their injuries.

Enlisting the services of an experienced Colorado workers’ compensation attorney is a last resort but is sometimes necessary if an injured worker experiences difficulty in obtaining benefits prescribed by law.