California is a magnet for millionaire sports athletes taking advantage of California workers’ compensation system and astonishingly, it is all perfectly legal. For many California workers, getting hurt on the job could put them and their families into poverty because of lost income. That is why our state has workers’ compensation, to provide medical care and payments to help employees get back on their feet. Despite its flaws, the system has worked well for employees and employers alike, ensuring that injured workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, receive the benefits they need and deserve.
Regrettably over 4,500 professional athletes have found a loophole in our worker’s comp system. They have been able to score six-figure paydays even though they played only a few games in the state, costing the state’s workers’ compensation system millions of dollars. Former Dallas Cowboy star and Dancing with the Stars contestant Michael Irvin received $249,000 from our state system. Past Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis received a $199,000 injury settlement from workers’ compensation for his football injuries despite having NFL health care AND a $6.8 million contract. While this might have been acceptable had they played for California NFL teams, they only play sporadic games in the Golden State. Remember that they were already covered by their own team’s insurance, disability insurance, and their own pensions. In addition, 99% of these claims are for cash, and not medical benefits! While taxpayers are not liable for these payments, state businesses fund the program and when their costs rise, they ultimately pass those costs on to the consumer.
The reason that professional athletes have decided to file their claims in California as opposed to other states is because we have more liberal workers’ compensation laws. Unlike other states, California provides additional money for the cumulative effect of sports injuries. Athletes also have more time to file a claim here compared to just a year or two in other states. In addition, California judges have ruled that any athlete who plays professionally here can receive benefits for injuries, even if they only played one game in our state. Therefore, nearly all pro athletes have a legal basis to apply for state benefits.
When the State of California pays six figures to an injured out-of-state athlete, fewer resources are available for the average worker who desperately needs assistance to make ends meet. This is simply unacceptable at a time when our workers’ compensation system is struggling to meet its obligations and job creators are already paying high insurance bills.
As Vice Chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee, I co-authored legislation (AB1309) that would prevent this outrageous abuse. We need to close this loophole. Reforms should protect the ability of athletes to seek cumulative trauma benefits under state law, only as long as they play for a California-based team.
As negotiations on a potential legislative solution to close this ambiguity moves forward, I hope athletes and their leagues will work out a solution on their own. Players who put their bodies through abuse on the playing field deserve to have their medical expenses fully paid for by their teams, but they should not exploit resources that are intended to help the average worker recover from a costly on-the-job injury.