From Danger to Security: Enhancing Worker Safety Through Tax Credits

Michael Chan-Lok

The Landscape of Workplace Hazards

Potentially hazardous conditions in many workplaces are often overlooked until they result in severe consequences for employees. Key industries such as construction, transportation, manufacturing, and extraction are vital to our economy, but also fraught with danger as working conditions in these fields pose significant risks to workers. Every April, we observe Workers’ Memorial Day to remember those whose lives or well-being were affected by these hidden dangers, on the job.

In 2022, work-related injuries led to 5,486 fatalities – equivalent to one death every 96 minutes – with the highest numbers in transportation and material moving occupations at 1,620 deaths and construction and extraction next at 1,056. This alarming data underscores the importance of broadening access and awareness of programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), as these measures provide a critical foundation of economic safety that can help workers cope with financial strains and lost earnings in the aftermath of workplace injuries. Not only must we advocate for better protections for all workers, but it is equally if not more necessary, to advocate for economic safety measures for all workforce members.

The Heightened Importance of the EITC/CTC for Workers in Hazardous Industries

Workers in hazardous industries not only confront physical dangers but also face economic risks such as the lack of comprehensive health insurance, paid sick leave, and lost earnings from injury or illness. Even minor injuries can lead to escalating medical expenses—from immediate treatments to recovery aids like crutches—often resulting in severe financial strain for those already at an economic disadvantage. This disproportionately impacts historically marginalized communities, which frequently work in higher-risk industries that often employ lower-income workers and people of color. These industries also see higher fatality rates among Black and Hispanic/Latino workers – 4.2 and 4.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, respectively – versus the overall rate of 3.7.

Expanding tax credits like the EITC and CTC is essential not only to bridging these financial gaps, but also to reinforcing the vital connection between workplace safety and economic security. Only one-half to three-fourths of injured workers eligible for workers’ compensation benefits receive them, and for those who do, less than a fifth of lost wages are replaced. This not only exacerbates economic inequalities but also compels workers to return to their jobs prematurely to maintain their income. The additional funds made available through these tax credits, if claimed, ensures that workers and their families are supported through both immediate and ongoing recovery challenges.

Opening Doors for ITIN Filers

Many workers in hazardous industries file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) are currently ineligible for essential tax credits like the EITC and CTC, despite paying income and property taxes. As of 2021, nearly one in 10 workers in the construction industry are undocumented, and of the estimated 5 million undocumented workers in the U.S., 1.6 million indivduals – over one in five workers – are employed in this sector alone. This exclusion of primarily non-citizens exacerbates economic disparities and undermines workplace safety and family stability by compelling workers to continue working through injuries because they cannot afford to lose income, thereby risking further harm. Expanding the EITC and CTC to include ITIN filers would not only correct a crucial inequity, but also enhance the economic security of additional households by helping manage essential expenses. As of July 2023, 10 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted legislation to allow ITIN filers to claim their state’s EITC, but the federal EITC remains inaccessible.

Supporting Families in Times of Need

The consequences of workplace injuries extend beyond the individual, affecting entire families. When a worker is injured or ill and unable to work, the resulting loss of income can be devastating. Here, tax credits become a lifeline, offering financial assistance that can help cover everything from household bills to food to unexpected medical costs. Benefits like the CTC become particularly vital for families with children who face additional pressures to make ends meet when a parent is injured. Moreover, many families, particularly those in Black and Latino communities, lack adequate liquid savings or access to credit and are significantly less likely than white workers to have the necessary savings to cover these financial strains.

Looking Ahead

As we remember those who have been affected or lost due to unsafe working conditions, we must reinforce and prioritize our commitment to protecting today’s workers. By expanding the EITC and CTC, policymakers can provide a more robust safety net for those in hazardous jobs, affirming their commitment not only to worker safety, but to the economic resilience of families in the U.S. Now more than ever, it’s time for action—to ensure that no worker’s injury leads to economic peril for them or their families.