The Texas Tribune Wins August Sidney for Exposé of State Workers’ Comp System

Jay Root wins the August Sidney Award for “Hurting for Work,” a series in The Texas Tribune, which illustrates how laissez-faire policies created the “Texas Miracle” on the backs of the people who built it.

Texas is the only state where firms of any size can opt out of the state workers’ compensation system. As a result, one out of every five Texas workers is excluded from the public system. Some employers opt for unregulated private plans that give workers few rights if they are injured on the job. Six percent of working Texans “go bare,” meaning that they have no workers’ compensation insurance at all.

“When these people are hurt, they often end up begging charities to help them, turn to federal disability programs or, if they are in the country without papers, get sent back home to fend for themselves,” Root said.

“Hurting for Work” tells the stories of Texans whose lives have been upended by on-the-job injuries and inadequate insurance coverage. People like Crystal Davis, whose husband worked for Burger King and was killed in a company car on his way to visit a franchise in Louisiana. Crystal buried her husband and was suddenly dealing with a mountain of bills. Since her husband’s job was “90 percent” travel — visiting franchises to help them improve profits — she filed for death benefits, which are supposedly guaranteed by the state’s workers’ compensation law.

Crystal won all three stages inside the Division of Workers’ Compensation. But then the insurance carrier, ACE American, sued her and her kids, to stop the payments. Their argument: Wayne was not in the “course and scope” of his employment even though he was in a company car fueled with company gas on his way to a preannounced appointment.

The case was dragging on for months with no end in sight. But airing her story publicly made a big difference at the courthouse. “Two days after we published the story of her battle as part of this series, Crystal called to tell me that the ACE had decided to drop its case,” Root said. “She directly attributed the decision to the publicity that The Texas Tribune brought.”

“The series has had real impact,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein. “The Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation fixed the defects the Tribune found in their 24-hour safety hotline and made live operators available 24 hours a day for the first time in 20 years.”

Jay Root, a native of Liberty, Texas, is an award-winning reporter for The Texas Tribune. Root previously covered politics at the Associated Press and was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1997 to 2008.

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