A provision in the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act [W. Va. Code § 23–4–1e(b)] that prohibits an inmate housed at a state work release center from receiving workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained while performing work for the state’s Division of Highways (DOH) does not violate the inmate’s equal protection rights in spite of the fact that such benefits are allowed if a similarly-housed inmate sustained injuries while working for a private employer, held the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, in Crawford v. West Va. Dep’t of Corr. Work Release, 2017 W. Va. LEXIS 433 (June 8, 2017).
The Court concluded that assuming, for the purposes of the instant inmate’s argument, that inmates who work for private businesses through the work-release program do, in fact, receive workers’ compensation benefits, the receipt of such benefits does not demonstrate disadvantageous treatment of inmates who instead work for a state agency, since both classes of inmates receive treatment for their work-related injuries. In the instant case, the state paid more than $90,000 in medical expenses related to the inmate’s injury.
Crawford, a former inmate, sought workers’ compensation benefits for an injury he sustained during his period of confinement at the Charleston Work Release Center. While assigned to a road crew serving DOH, Crawford’s hand was severely injured when it was caught in a wood chipper. His injuries resulted in surgery and hospitalization, with medical bills in excess of $90,000 that were paid by Corrections. Crawford was paroled soon after his release from the hospital.
The Workers’ Compensation Board of Review (Board) affirmed a decision by Office of Judges (OOJ) finding that Crawford was incarcerated and an inmate while housed at the Charleston Work Release Center, that the workers from work release centers were considered inmates and not employees, and that, pursuant to West Virginia Code § 23–4–1e(b) (2011) (2016 Supp.), Crawford was ineligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits for an injury he received while in a work-release center performing work for DOH.
On appeal, the Court acknowledged that there were two issues:
- Whether an inmate participating in a work-release program and assigned to work for a state agency was prohibited from receiving workers’ compensation benefits by W. Va. Code § 23–4–1e(b) (2011) (Supp. 2016); and
- Whether denying workers’ compensation benefits to an inmate who is participating in a work-release program violates equal protection.
Was Crawford’s Work “Imposed” Upon Him?
Noting the specific language of § 23–4–1e(b), which disqualifies the inmate from receiving benefits for work that “is imposed by the administration of the state correctional facility or jail …”, Crawford argued that his work had not been “imposed.” Instead, he said it was voluntary. Indeed, Crawford contended that such work was provided as a privilege.
The Court disagreed. While it is true that Crawford sought the work release program and the work that was provided therein, the work itself was nevertheless imposed by the state. If he refused to perform under the program, he would have been returned to the regular prison population. Construing the full text of the statute, the Court held Crawford was prohibited from receiving workers’ compensation benefits.
Equal Protection Issue
As indicated above, Crawford also contended that some incarcerated prisoners who work while serving their period of confinement—those who work for private employers—are mandated to receive workers’ compensation, while those, such as himself, who work for a state agency, are not. Crawford added that, had he been doing the same work for a private employer, he would have received workers’ compensation benefits. He contended that the denial of workers’ compensation benefits to work-release inmates serving a state agency advanced no reasonable government interest, nor was there a rational basis for such a denial.
In a footnote, the Court noted that the only evidence in the record pertaining to whether work release inmates working in the private sector receive workers’ compensation was within the deposition testimony by Mr. Jeff Stinnett, Administrator of the Charleston Work Release Center. The Department of Corrections added in its arguments before the Court that if the private sector was permitted to employ inmates without providing the same sort of workers’ compensation benefits afforded to other employees, the businesses would receive an unfair advantage in competition versus other private businesses not utilizing inmates. The Department also argued that imposing a duty on state agencies to provide workers’ compensation for inmate workers would have a substantial negative impact on the State’s budget.
The Court concluded that assuming that inmates who work for private businesses through the work-release program do, in fact, receive workers’ compensation benefits, the receipt of such benefits did not demonstrate disadvantageous treatment of inmates who instead work for a state agency. Clearly both classes of inmates receive treatment for work-related injuries. The Court parenthetically noted that Crawford would likely have been entitled to PPD benefits for the loss of use of his hand had he been working for a private employer, but indicated the disparate treatment was rational under the facts of the case.
Different Treatment Not Always Forbidden
The decision shows that an employee must do more than craft an argument showing how the statute creates two classes of individuals that are treated differently. He or she must also show that there is no rational basis for the distinction. In the instant case, Crawford failed to convince the Court that the disparate treatment was unjustified.