Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ideological Shift

Marriage and the attitudes towards it are apparently changing in America. 

Last year, the topic of "same-gender" or "same-sex" marriage was in the news. In Marriage, the Law and Workers' Compensation, I took a stab at exploring a decision of the Alaska Supreme Court. The issue there was intertwined with the word "spouse" as used in many workers' compensation statutes. The most general application is in the context of workers' compensation benefits for the death of a worker. 

It is important to note that death benefits around the country are rarely a legislative focus. This is likely due in part to the fact that workplace deaths are a small percentage of the annual accidents. As mentioned in the previous post, there are still too many deaths. The good news is that workplace death seems to be an area in which safety efforts are having a positive effect. 

The Florida death benefits section is Fla. Stat. §440.16. It provides benefits in (1)(a) for "funeral expenses not to exceed $7,500.00." Many would suggest that this sum is no longer sufficient to cover the expenses related to a funeral. Inflation is a reality in this country as anyone who has purchased groceries lately will tell you. 

The law proceeds in (1)(b) to define and confine who will be eligible for compensation benefits as a result of a death. Everyone potentially entitled to such benefits is so "on account of dependency upon the deceased." The aggregate of all of the death benefits is currently capped at $150,000.00. What is considered a "poverty level" income would likely depend on where one lived. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) recognizes that the number of people in a household influences what is considered "poverty." 

According to the USDHHS website, for a family of three, the poverty threshold is $20,090.00. So a family of four that loses a wage-earner, leaving three dependents, might receive about 7.5 times that annual income in total Florida workers' compensation death benefits ($150,000/20,090 = 7.46). 

The statute delineates which of the deceased worker's relatives will receive how much in benefits. The sentence that is worthy of consideration here is "to the spouse." The first and second subsection of (1)(b) each lead with "to the spouse." As discussed in Marriage, the Law and Workers' Compensation This language may be very important regarding the analysis of how marriage is defined. 

The provisions of (1)(b)2. also include that spousal death benefits may be affected by "the surviving spouse's remarriage." In such an instance, the surviving souse "shall be entitled to a lump-sum payment equal to 26 weeks of compensation at the rate of 50% of the average weekly wage."

The provisions of (1)(c) also begin with "to the surviving spouse" and provide for education and training benefits for that surviving spouse. This may provide up to 1,800 classroom hours, or 80 semester hours, at "any community college established under Part III of Chapter 1004."

So there are multiple instances of the use of "spouse" regarding entitlement to Florida workers' compensation death benefits. But recent news regarding the state of marriage in America bears revisiting the "spouse" language for further consideration. 

Regardless of how you would define marriage, or "spouse," there is evidence that marriage generally is on the decline in America. Yahoo News reported in June Singles Nation: Why So Many Americans are Unmarried. According to this story, "single adults now outnumber married adults in the U.S." The story says that "for the first time, the number of unmarried American adults outnumbered those who were married" last year. 

Of those, "one in 7 lives alone - about 31 million compared to 4 million in 1950." Another part of this analysis is that "almost half of new births are to unmarried mothers." That does not necessarily mean these mothers are alone, "the number of parents living together but not married has tripled" according to the article. There is no detail provided regarding over what period of time this tripling occurred. 

The Yahoo article continues "in 1950, married couples represented 78 percent of households," and in 2011 "that percentage had dropped to 48 percent." Looked at a different way, "in 2014 . . . 124.6 million Americans 16 years and older were single, or 50.2 percent of the population, compared with 37.4 percent of the population in 1976."

In 1960, the average age of marriage for Americans was "20 for women and 22 for men." Currently, the average has increased "to 27 for women and 29 for men." As they await that age, these young people form "urban tribes" which are described as "close groups of friends," and they "focus on their careers and their own personal fulfillment." Sounds like a description of Friends?

It is perhaps contributed to in part by the volume of American divorce. However, the "number of American adults who have never been married is at a historic high, around 20 percent." The young, referred to as the "Millennial Generation" do not hold marriage in the same regard as earlier generations. In 1997, members of "Generation X" responded indicating 47% of them felt that "having a successful marriage is one of the most important things." A recent similar poll of Millennials demonstrated "only 30 percent" of them held that belief. 

A Pew study "in 2010" revealed a belief that "marriage was becoming obsolete" held by forty percent of Americans. 

The "academics" therefore conclude that "American society is in the midst of a fundamental social and demographic shift." One sociologist's conclusion is quoted, that this shift is "affecting everything from housing and health care to child rearing and churches." Workers' compensation, a billion dollar program that is a fundamental part of the modern working world in all fifty states was not mentioned. 

Unfortunately, despite its broad influence on the lives of so many, workers' compensation is often overlooked by the academics. In a state that recognizes "common law marriage" perhaps those without a formal marriage certificate might be recognized as "spouses" in the event of a workplace death. Or, perhaps with the absence of some formality of a marriage, there would not be entitlement to death benefits for that nonetheless dependent person left behind?

As the attitudes towards marriage shift, should the entitlement to workers' compensation death benefits change? Is the spirit of the law to support that dependent left behind, or is the intent more specific and focused only on such a dependent with the legal standing of a "spouse?" If the entitlement criteria were changed to something short of formal legal marriage, would the benefit cessation criteria, the "surviving spouse's remarriage" language, also change to recognize that something short of of formal legal remarriage would later alter entitlement?

Our world seems to be constantly changing. Hericlitus is credited with the quote "change is the only constant." Every generation seems to lament the change, and reflect on the "good old days."  Is it a conscious legislative decision to cling statutorily to "spouse" or is this merely something that has yet to be noticed in the context of a shifting attitude towards marriage?

No comments:

Post a Comment