Hartwig Ponders Potential Impact of Shutdown on Worker Safety

Nancy Grover

Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) – More than 800,000 federal employees are working without pay during the government shutdown. And that financial insecurity may or may not endanger the workers and their co-workers, according to experts.

“The fact that an employee is being required to work but with no pay (presumably they will receive back pay when the shutdown ends) should, in theory, have no impact on how employees view rules and other safety measures,” said Robert Hartwig, special consultant for the Insurance Information Institute, in an interview with WorkersCompensation.com. “That said, an employee who is required to work without pay for some indefinite period of time could potentially feel that their employer (the government) no longer has their best interests in mind and, in time, could become less attentive to safety measures. It’s also the case that some jobs could become more hazardous if certain duties must be performed at levels that are less than optimally staffed.”

Hartwig said he thought it was possible workplace injuries could increase or even decrease.

“It is certainly possible that workers who are preoccupied by personal financial concerns arising from the shutdown are likely to become more distracted as the shutdown continues. It is also likely that lapses will occur as the result of those distractions. Whether there is any discernable effect on occupational injury rates will remain to be seen,” he said. “It’s also possible that the overall effect of the shutdown on occupational injuries within the federal workforce will be to lower frequency — simply because so many workers are furloughed and not working at all (in addition to not being paid).”

At present, he said, worker financial insecurity shouldn’t be a worry to tax payers, but could be in the future. “It will take only one high profile lapse to bring public attention to this issue,” he said.

Jirs Meuris, Assistant Professor of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, says his research into financial insecurity has found that employees are more likely to be distracted during times of financial insecurity, which can lead to less work productivity and less quality of work.

“In one recently published paper, I linked financial insecurity to the likelihood of a preventable accident among truck drivers,” Meuris says. “Injuries obviously are associated with accidents so we would expect that financial insecurity makes people more prone to injuries as well. Another on-going project uses daily data that also doesn’t directly look at injuries, but which may provide some insight, found that when people experience an event that negatively affects their personal finances, it evokes anxiety,” which may affect how much they are able to do as well as the quality of their work and could be at higher risk of making mistakes.

“I haven’t looked at injuries directly,” Meuris says. “The study with truck drivers found that a one standard deviation increase in financial worry was associated with a 0.44 percent increase in the probability of a preventable accident, which translated in that population to 8 more preventable accidents per year and $1.3 million in annual direct accident costs.”

Reports also indicate that some Transportation Security Administration agents are calling in sick in order to work at other jobs that are paying. According to the Association of Federal Government Workers, TSA employees are threatening to quit over the longest government shutdown in American history.

Meuris says the financial insecurity of federal employees is something all Americans should be worried about.

“In short, we should be worried, but to be fair, we should’ve been worried before the shutdown,” he says. “There is widespread evidence that financial insecurity is rampant across the United States — for instance, most people do not have $400 in case of an emergency. The shutdown has amplified this concern because you have many people on the job right now who are vital to national security but are not receiving pay and have a lot of uncertainty about when they will be paid. This affects us all, and in the end, makes us all less safe.

But the impact of the federal government shutdown on workers’ compensation isn’t as clear, he says.

“In all honesty, as a tax payer myself, I’m not as much worried about the cost of workers’ comp than the safety costs,” he says. “I’ve always been an advocate for having strong safety nets for workers (from workers’ comp to medical coverage to retirement) because they benefit everyone, and so, we should compensate federal workers who are working in these conditions but incur an injury. The larger concern should be about creating conditions that reduce financial insecurity so that injuries don’t happen and the worker’s comp doesn’t need to be paid.”

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