Benefits are critical for retaining employees. Some mandated by law, like worker's comp, go beyond comfort to create protection for employees. But a new lawsuit brought in California claims that the system penalizes women and provides unequal compensation for injuries.

Unlike many lawsuits that target large companies for alleged labor violations or overly restrictive non-compete agreements, this suit names "the California state agencies and officials responsible for administering the workers' compensation system," according to a release from the groups that filed the suit.

Filing the class action suit were pro bono law firm Public Counsel, law firm Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, civil rights non-profit Equal Rights Advocates, Professor Catherine Fisk of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and the Service Employees International Union. The lawsuit complaint, Page et. al. v. Parisotto et. al., claims that "the workers' compensation system unlawfully discriminates on the basis of sex in the calculation of permanent disability benefits--benefits intended to compensate injured workers for long-term physical loss and the loss of earning capacity." According to the suit, this happens in two ways.

The first is that injuries are allegedly reduced, claiming that gender or reproductive organs become a "predisposing condition," even though problems that men face are not necessarily treated in a similar fashion. For example, the groups say that men might be compensated $25,000 for a prostate removal while women would get nothing for breast removal.

According to the lawsuit, the second way is that "women receive fewer permanent disability benefits than the extent of their injuries merit because harm unique to women is ignored." So, "the workers' compensation system assigns a negligible--and in some cases, zero--disability rating to breast cancer and the loss of a breast."

For example, many carpal tunnel syndrome cases are attributed in part to gender, according to the suit. But determining causality is tricky. Are women more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome, or are they over represented in jobs that are more likely to cause such problems?

The groups allege that such treatment is due as a "direct result of policies and practices permitted and condoned" by the State of California. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary awards, reasonable attorney fees and expenses, and injunctive relief that would force changes in the current workers' comp awards system in the state.

Although confined to California, the suit raises questions of whether similar cases of discrimination could be alleged in other states and whether groups might bring suits in other jurisdictions.