Understanding Workman’s Comp Insurance in California

Workers’ compensation insurance provides wage replacement and medical benefits to employees in California who are injured or suffer an occupational disease in the course of employment. As an employer, it’s important to understand your obligations regarding workman’s comp, and for workers, it’s beneficial to know your rights and what is covered. In this extensive guide, we will break down all the important details about how the California workers’ compensation system works.

What is Workers’ Compensation Insurance?


Workers’ compensation insurance, also known as workman’s comp insurance or simply workers’ comp, is a form of insurance provided by employers to their employees to cover costs related to workplace injuries, occupational diseases, or even death incurred in the course and scope of employment. Workers’ comp replaces lost wages and compensates for medical expenses and helps injured workers back into the workforce after recovery.

In California, workers’ compensation is governed by state law under the California Labor Code and applies to both private and public employers with one or more employees. It is a no-fault system, meaning employees are guaranteed certain benefits regardless of who was responsible for the injury or illness. Workers receive benefits according to a set fee schedule established by the state, not through a lawsuit against their employer. In return, the workers give up their right to sue their employer for negligence regarding a work-related injury or illness.


The central premise behind workers’ compensation is that the cost of industrial injuries should be treated as a cost of doing business rather than imposing the entire burden on the individual injured employee. By law in California, employers are required to obtain workers’ comp insurance coverage from a commercial carrier or be self-insured to ensure employees have rapid access to medical treatment and compensation without needing to sue.

Workers’ Compensation Benefits

The main benefits provided through California’s workers’ compensation system include:

Medical Care: All reasonable and necessary medical treatment is covered for occupational injury or illness. This includes doctor visits, hospitalization, surgery, physical therapy, prescriptions, medical devices, etc. There are no deductibles or co-pays for employees.

Temporary Disability (TTD): If the employee cannot work during recovery from injury or illness, TTD benefits are provided to compensate for lost wages. This starts on the first day of disability for injuries and after three days of disability for illnesses. The benefit amount is based on 2/3 of gross wages, up to weekly maximums set by the state. TTD continues until the employee returns to work or reaches permanent and stationary status.

Permanent Disability (PD): If the condition causes permanent impairment, the employee may qualify for permanent disability benefits. A doctor evaluates the level of permanent impairment as a percentage of whole-person impairment. The benefit amount depends on the level of disability determined.

Vocational Rehabilitation: The system aims to return injured workers to suitable employment. Services like retraining or job placement assistance may be provided to help in finding a new line of work if the employee can no longer perform regular duties due to permanent work restrictions.

Death Benefits: If the injury or occupational disease causes death, benefits are available to eligible survivors like spouses, children, or other legal dependents of the deceased employee.

Supplemental Job Displacement Vouchers: Most employees who become permanently disabled receive vocational assistance or retraining through their employer. Those whose injuries occurred after 2004 may also qualify for a Supplemental Job Displacement Voucher worth up to $6,000 to offset the costs of education required for a new career.

Covered Employees

In general, California workers’ compensation covers all employees who meet certain basic qualifying criteria:

  • Must be hired in California or temporarily working in the state
  • Work for a covered employer (generally companies with 1+ employees)
  • No minimum length of employment requirement
  • Coverage extends to full-time, part-time, seasonal, apprentices, and minors

Excluded classes include independent contractors, sole proprietors without employees, domestic household workers, public employees who elect alternative coverage, and employees who illegally enter the country.

Covered Employers

Employers covered under California’s workers’ comp system include:

  • Private businesses with one or more employees
  • Most public employers like state and local government agencies and school districts
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Corporations
  • Partnerships

However, certain types of employers may be exempt through documentation, including:

  • Some small agriculture operations
  • Some foreign corporations without a permanent place of business in California
  • Directors of non-profit corporations

Any business with at least one employee is required to maintain valid workers’ compensation coverage through a commercial carrier, self-insurance, or other approved alternative means. Employers may face fines or penalties for lapses or failure to comply.

Getting Workers’ Comp Insurance

California employers have a few main options for obtaining the mandated workers’ comp insurance coverage:

Commercial Insurance Policy: Most employers purchase a standard insurance policy directly from an insurance carrier. Premiums are based on payroll and risk classifications for the type of work. Carrier manages all claims administration.

Self-Insurance: Larger companies with sufficient financial reserves and consistent payroll may apply for self-insured status. Still required to maintain financial security deposit and have third party administrator handle claims.

Group Self-Insurance Plans: Multiple smaller employers join together as a group to self-insure. Requires applications and meeting certain thresholds.

State Fund: The State Compensation Insurance Fund (SCIF) is a quasi-public insurer available to all employers. Rates may be higher than commercial rates for some businesses.

Certified Private Self-Insurance Plans: In rare cases, very large companies can apply for full self-insurance certification with self-funded claims financing and full administration.

The California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Workers’ Compensation oversees statewide compliance and licensing of carriers, self-insured employers, and third-party administrators. A policy or approved program must be maintained at all times when engaging employees.

Filing a Workers’ Comp Claim

For employees, here are the basic steps for filing and obtaining benefits through a workplace injury or illness claim in California:

Report Injury: Notify your employer as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours of a work injury occurring or diagnosis of occupational illness.

Seek Medical Care: Get necessary emergency or follow-up treatment from a doctor approved by your employer’s workers’ comp insurance.

File a Claim: Obtain the necessary forms like a DWC-1 claim form from your employer or the state website and submit within 30 days of injury or awareness of relation to work.

Benefit Payments: Entitlements like medical costs, wage replacement, and dependent benefits are paid by the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier without fault being established.

Qualify for Disability: For long-term absences or permanent restrictions, additional assessments may be required to qualify for benefits beyond wage replacement to permanent disability awards.

Settlement: Complex or disputed cases may be resolved through a compromise and release agreement. All parties must agree to a lump sum settlement instead of lifetime benefits under certain conditions.

The process aims to provide prompt no-fault medical care and compensation. Most claims are routine and paid timely with ongoing communication between all involved parties.

Employer Responsibilities

While obtaining valid insurance coverage is the primary obligation, California employers must also fulfill other duties under the workers’ compensation system:

  • Post notice of rights and insurance information in the workplace
  • Provide claim forms and assist with reporting injuries promptly
  • Ensure appropriate medical care is authorized right away
  • Inform employees of their protections and entitlements
  • Cooperate fully with investigations into contested cases
  • Maintain records of incidents, lost time, medical providers, etc.
  • Comply with rehabilitation requirements as needed
  • Avoid discriminating or retaliating against injured employees

Meeting all responsibilities lowers premiums through positive experience rating and avoiding added fines or penalties that may otherwise be imposed.

Disputing or Appealing a Claim

Like any administrative system, disputes can arise regarding workers’ compensation claims in California. Both employers and employees have processes for challenging decisions:

Employers: To dispute the compensability of a claim, a Notice of Claim Dispute must be filed within 90 days of being notified. This allows limited investigation before claim acceptance.

Employees: For denied claims, reductions of benefits, or issues with medical treatment – Request for Assistance or Application for Adjudication can be filed with the local Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board to have a hearing before a Workers’ Comp Judge.

Appeals: Either party has up to one year to appeal an initial WCAB ruling through the Court of Appeals and potentially the California Supreme Court for review of legal errors only.

Fraud Allegations: Suspected acts of fraud committed by either employees or providers are investigated and prosecuted by the Department of Insurance through administrative proceedings.

The system aims to promptly determine valid claims while safeguarding against abuse or unwarranted benefit outlays. Over 90% of California work injury reports result in claim acceptance and resolution without formal adjudication.

Common FAQs on California Workers’ Compensation:

Here are some frequently asked questions on various aspects of the state’s workers’ compensation system:

Is my home business required to carry workers’ comp insurance?
In California, any employer regularly employing one or more individuals is mandated to maintain workers’ compensation coverage regardless of where the business is located. Home businesses with employees must obtain a policy.

What should I do if I’m injured on the job?
Notify your employer as soon as possible and seek medical treatment. Then file a claim with your employer to start the benefits process. Cooperation is key to receiving the support you’re entitled to under the law.

Am I covered if I’m hurt traveling for work?
Injuries sustained while performing job duties away from the regular workplace are generally covered by workers’ compensation, including travel required by the employer. Additional assessments may be needed for unusual circumstances.

Can I get workers’ comp if my illness was not acute?
Conditions like repetitive stress injuries and other occupational diseases with delayed or gradual onset may still be accepted as work-related after proper medical evaluation. Claims are assessed individually based on job functions and potential exposures.

What do I do if my claim is denied?
Contact the Information and Assistance Unit of the Division of Workers’ Compensation for guidance. You may have the right to contest the decision by requesting reconsideration from the claims administrator or filing an Application for Adjudication to have a hearing before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board.