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Workers compensation

A Guide to Workers’ Compensation for Nurses

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A portrait of Atticus Client Advocate Kerry O'Shea.
Kerry O'Shea
Client Advocate
May 30, 2024  ·  7 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality workers' compensation advice to those injured at work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and help thousands of Americans get the benefits they deserve each year.

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From exposure to other people’s contagious illnesses to the burden of lifting and moving patients, it’s no surprise that nurses are commonly injured on the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports that the number of days nurses took off work because of injury or illness jumped 291% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you do get injured or contract an illness at work, workers’ compensation is designed to help you pay medical bills and cover lost income while you can’t work.


Workers’ comp basics

Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance coverage that all states (except Texas and South Dakota) require employers to have. If an employee gets injured or ill while at work, the workers’ compensation policy steps in. It offers two forms of aid:

  1. Payment for medical expenses resulting from a work injury

  2. Income to replace a percentage of your lost wages while you can’t work

The vast majority of employees have access to workers’ comp benefits and it should be relatively easy to tap into. You don’t have to sue your employer to get benefits, and it isn’t a government handout. Instead, you’re using a protection that was specifically created to help you out if something bad happens to you while you’re at work.


When nurses can qualify for workers’ comp

You need to satisfy two criteria to qualify for workers’ compensation coverage:

  1. You are an employee of the company with the workers’ comp insurance policy (contractors don’t qualify).

  2. Your injury or illness happens at work or is a direct result of carrying out your job duties.

For example, if you’re employed by a hospital and you hurt your back moving a patient, you should be covered by the hospital’s plan. You’re also covered if you’re the employee of an agency or staffing service that sends you to different locations for temporary jobs. But if you’re a traveling nurse signed onto the hospital as an independent contractor, you won’t qualify for workers’ comp benefits.

Signs you’re an independent contractor

The easiest way to tell if you’re an employee or contractor is to look at the tax forms you get. If the company that pays you gives you a Form W-2 during tax season, you’re an employee. If you get a 1099 form, they’ve legally classified you as a contractor.

Other signs that you’re a contractor include:

  • There is no tax withheld from your paycheck.

  • You make quarterly estimated tax payments to the IRS.

Contract nursing offers great flexibility since you are self-employed, but the tradeoff is losing access to several types of benefits, like workers’ comp, that are provided by employers. It is possible to buy a workers’ comp policy for yourself, but you should consult with a financial advisor or tax professional to better understand how it could affect your business expenses.

What to do if you’re misclassified as a contractor

Different states have different laws around who is classified as an employee or as a contractor. If you think you should be an employee but your employer says you aren’t, you can take legal action. State laws and the details of your work will determine the success of your lawsuit, but an Atticus workers’ comp lawyer may be able to help. Otherwise, a local employment lawyer is your best option.

In the meantime, make sure to report a work injury to your employer as soon as you can. Then you might be able to file a claim yourself. If that claim is denied, appealing to your state’s workers’ comp board and proving that you should be classified as a full-time employee is possible, though we strongly suggest talking to a workers’ comp lawyer for assistance.


Injuries and illnesses that qualify for workers’ comp

Generally speaking, any injury, illness, disease, or health condition that results directly from your work and makes you unable to do your job can qualify. Workers’ comp is also a no-fault system, meaning it doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the injury.

Common qualifying workers’ comp conditions include:

  • Cuts and scrapes

  • Muscle strains

  • Fractures, sprains, and dislocations

  • Injuries caused by patients or other staff members

  • Injuries from repetitive actions over time, like carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Fatigue from long work hours or from being on your feet all day

  • Needlestick injuries

  • Illnesses from exposure to chemicals, harmful substances, or sick patients

  • Slip and fall injuries

  • Work-related mental health conditions, such as PTSD in the aftermath of a violent act

To a large extent, qualifying for workers’ compensation comes down to proving that your condition was directly caused by your work.

Having a specific incident you can point to will make filing your claim easier. For example, if a piece of medical equipment falls and crushes your foot, you have a clear case. But even injuries or illnesses that develop over time can qualify. If you develop severe plantar fasciitis from standing all day, for example, you may be able to get workers’ comp to cover medical expenses and pay you while you take time off to let it heal.

Atticus has answers to your workers' comp questions.

How to file a workers’ comp claim

There are some key steps to take before you can get workers’ comp:

  1. Report your injury.

  2. File a workers’ compensation claim.

  3. Receive medical care from an approved workers’ comp doctor.

1. Report your injury

If you have an injury or illness the first step is to report it to your employer. That could mean your boss, supervisor, or human resources department. You may only have a few days to report it before you lose the chance to file a claim, and each state has its own reporting deadline.

How you report the injury also depends on your state. Some states only require a verbal notification to the employer, while others need you to fill out a specific form. Your employer should give you the necessary form in most cases, but we suggest that you start by reporting your injury in writing (here’s how to report your work injury or illness).

2. File a workers’ compensation claim

Once you notify your employer, they should get the workers’ comp claim started. Usually, the early stages require you to fill out some paperwork about your injury. Our state-by-state guide can help you get a better idea of what to expect — and help you through the next steps if your employer is dragging their feet.

After filing, your company’s workers’ comp insurance company will approve or deny your claim and your lost wage payments should start.

3. Receive medical care

If your work injury requires emergency medical care, you should get that right away and tell the medical provider that your injury is work-related. They will hopefully bill your employer but if you pay out of pocket, you can seek reimbursement from workers’ comp.

After your claim is filed, you can start more regular treatment. Your employer may choose your workers’ comp doctor or you could have to pick one from a list of approved providers. The laws in some areas also let you choose your doctor. Your employer should let you know how it works under their workers’ comp insurance policy.

Your doctor will create a treatment plan based on your injury and provide recommendations for how much work you can do (if any) while you recover. It’s important to follow these instructions or you could lose workers’ comp benefits.

Talking to a workers’ comp lawyer at this stage is helpful. They can advise you on getting the best medical care under your state’s rules, especially if you disagree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment plan. (Atticus lawyers also offer a free consultation with no upfront fee.)


How much workers’ comp pays

If you can’t work at all, workers’ comp usually pays every week or two with a check that’s worth two-thirds of your average weekly wage. This varies by state though, with some areas paying slightly more or less. Find your state payment rate here.

If you return to work at a decreased capacity (say you switch to desk work while letting your plantar fasciitis heal, for example), workers’ comp will pay the difference between what your employer is paying and two-thirds of your usual pay. Many places refer to this as light-duty work or modified-duty work.

If you get your full paycheck, you won’t get any payments through workers’ comp, though your medical expenses should still be covered.

No matter how much income replacement you get from the workers’ comp insurance company, it should also pay for all of the medical expenses related to your injury or illness. If you ever get a bill or insurance denies coverage, that’s a situation when a lawyer can help.


Will you get a workers’ comp settlement?

Many workers’ comp cases end with a settlement, which is usually one big payment that is meant to cover your lost income and medical expenses resulting from your injury. Not all claims end with a lump-sum payout but they’re especially common if your injury requires long-term treatment or if your doctor says you may never return to your pre-injury condition (a point called maximum medical improvement).

If the workers’ comp insurance company offers to settle your claim, we suggest talking to a workers’ comp lawyer. You can negotiate a settlement yourself but estimating lost wages and the cost of medical care isn’t easy. The insurance will also have its own lawyer (or a team of them) whose goal is to pay you as little as possible. A lawyer can help you level the playing field to negotiate a fair payout. Workers’ comp lawyers also don’t charge anything upfront. You only pay after you get your settlement.

Learn more: Average Settlements by Injured Body Part


Get answers to your workers’ comp questions

As a nurse, you’re exposed to a wide range of workplace risks every day. Workers’ comp can step in to protect you if you do get hurt or sick on the job, but claims don’t always go smoothly and navigating the process is confusing. We recommend hiring a professional who’s trained in your area’s workers’ comp laws.

An experienced workers’ comp lawyer will be able to help you secure quality medical care, fill out paperwork, and handle communication with your employer and claims adjuster. They can also help you negotiate a settlement that covers your lost income and medical bills.

You don’t have to pay a lawyer person anything out of pocket, either. They get a percentage of your settlement or whatever payments they win for you, and you don’t owe anything until after they get you that payment. And since the average settlement with an Atticus lawyer is double what people get without a lawyer, you’re still making money after paying the fee.

If you have questions about workers’ comp or what a lawyer can do for you, Atticus can help. Take our quick workers’ comp quiz to get started. We’ll reach out to learn more about your situation, answer your questions, and connect you with a lawyer who’s right for your situation.

Settle your workers' comp claim today.

Related resources:

When Will Workers' Comp Offer a Settlement?

Average Workers’ Comp Settlements by Body Part

See what you qualify for

How long ago did you get an injury or illness at work?

A portrait of Atticus Client Advocate Kerry O'Shea.

Kerry O'Shea

Client Advocate

Kerry O'Shea is an Atticus Client Advocate, helping injured workers to navigate the workers' compensation process and get the benefits they deserve.
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