government’s role should be limited. Wisconsin relied solely on private insurers for workers’ compensation policies, and officials there deliberately resisted pressures from the state federation of labor to establish a state fund. Wisconsin also opted to make workers’ compensation elective rather than compulsory for employers. By establishing the right regulatory framework, reformers could create incentives for employers to make their workplaces safer and to offer compensation to injured workers (Altmeyer 1932: part II; Schlabach 1969: 36-39). Other characteristics of the Wisconsin school were resistence to national uniformity and a willingness to accommodate powerful interests (Skocpol and Ikenberry 1983). Major changes to the status quo would seem to be out of the picture.
In addition, workers’ compensation suffered from several operational problems that would have made anyone inclined to national involvement quite hesitant. In his study of Wisconsin, Altmeyer (1932) found that as the workers’ compensation program grew between 1912 and 1931, administrative costs per case failed to drop significantly, an indication that economies of scale would prove elusive. For most of the 1920s, 40% of all new cases reported were still pending by the end of the year, which did not signify a swift response to the problem of industrial accidents. The time lag between injury and compensation was a problem in other states, too. Between 1914 and 1933, the number of workers’ compensation awards that were later contested in court rose from 7 to 20 percent in Maryland (Berkowitz 1987: 24). Perhaps most tellingly, Altmeyer discovered that private insurers consistently lost money on workers’ compensation during the 1920s.18 The only reason they stayed in business was because they offset these losses with profits from other lines of insurance that they sold to employers as a package deal. Such a strategy would have been unavailable to the national government.
Altmeyer was also disturbed by the “random quality” of workers’ compensation in Wisconsin: workers with minor injuries received too much, workers with major injuries received too little, and workers with identical injuries received different amounts of compensation (Berkowitz and McQuaid 1992: 107). As the final CES report noted, workers’ compensation laws across the nation “were sadly lacking in uniformity” (Committee on Economic Security 1935). This was not just the view from Washington. Speaking before a meeting of the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions, the chairman of Maine’s Industrial Accident Commission offered a scathing indictment:
... the amounts paid for the losses of certain members in each State often bear no consistent relationship at all to the amounts paid for the losses of other members, nor are they in proportion to the value of the body as a whole. The various systems of such compensation in the United States, or lack of system, have been characterized as a veritable crazy quilt. The schedules themselves have been declared over and over again, by commissioners and other competent authorities, as haphazard, unscientific – even as absurdities (quoted in Dawson 1938: 471).