Archive for the ‘Workers’ Compensation Reform’ Category

Lawmakers Ask for Federal Oversight of State Workers’ Comp Programs

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Ten powerful members of Congress, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have asked the federal government to resume oversight and monitoring of workers’ compensation in the wake of drastic cuts to benefits for injured workers.

“State workers’ compensation laws are no longer providing adequate levels of support and compensation for workers injured on the job,” the lawmakers wrote. “The race to the bottom now appears to be nearly bottomless…”

Over the last decade, 33 states, including North Carolina, have cut workers’ compensation benefits, making it more difficult to qualify and giving employers more control over an injured workers’ medical care.

These so-called workers’ comp “reforms” have pushed many injured workers into poverty and have shifted the cost of caring for them to taxpayers, via Social Security Disability, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. Meanwhile, they have enriched insurances companies and big businesses.

The cuts in workers’ comp benefits coincide with the end of federal oversight and tracking of state-run programs.

Until 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor Department tracked changes in state workers’ comp laws and failures to meet 19 “minimum and essential standards for benefits” established by a 1972 commission created by President Richard Nixon.

Unchecked and without federal accountability for 11 years, many states have bowed to influence and pressure by insurance companies and big businesses and stripped injured workers of their rights and safety net.

The letter urged the federal agency Department to strengthen its oversight of state-run workers’ comp programs.

You can read the full text of the letter here. http://bit.ly/laborletter.

According to a news report by NPR, the Labor Department said in a statement it shares the lawmakers’ concerns. “Every year injured workers and their families are bearing more and more of the cost of workplace injuries and illnesses.”

However, the agency did not outline a specific plan for addressing these issues but did indicate it will work “with stakeholders to find real solutions.”
The cuts to workers’ compensation programs in North Carolina and elsewhere will continue without strong, vocal opposition to the big business and insurance interests. We praise these lawmakers for standing up for injured people.

It’s important that we as citizens support and vote for candidates who support injured workers and stand up for their rights. Please remember that as you go to the polls.

Call N.C. Senators to Oppose Workers’ Comp Trucking Bill

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Out-of-state trucking companies want to push the cost of caring for injured truck drivers onto North Carolina taxpayers.

It’s just the latest effort by big business to destroy North Carolina’s workers’ compensation system and to gut benefits in favor of profits.

N.C. Senate Bill 205, which is currently being considered in committee but could soon be brought to a vote in the N.C. General Assembly, seeks to change how trucking companies and their employees are covered when they’re injured on the job. If this legislation passes, it puts injured truck drivers at real risk and will shift the expense of covering their injuries to taxpayers.

Truck driving is one of the most dangerous occupations; many of the injuries are catastrophic.

A little background on how N.C. workers’ compensation laws work in regards to truck drivers:

In 2003, state law was enacted to allow allow trucking companies to cover their independent contractors in a blanket workers’ compensation policy. The law allows trucking companies to charge back the costs of that coverage to drivers, giving independent contractors coverage in the event of a wreck or other work-related injury. The N.C. Trucking Association supported this legislation.

In 2006, the statute was amended to exempt mom-and-mom trucking companies from providing this type of workers’ comp coverage when they contract with an owner/operator drivers using their own truck. The amended law is a balanced provision resulting from hours of negotiation. It was fair to small mom-and-pop trucking companies and to owner-operator drivers.

Senate Bill 205 would extend the mom-and-pop exemption to practically any operator working for an independent trucker. It undercuts the idea that all truck drivers should be covered under workers’ compensation.

Large out-of-state trucking companies have for years made efforts to push their workers’ compensation obligations off onto drivers, sub-contractors or the public. One of the ways they have done this is to substitute inferior “occupational accident” policies for workers’ compensation.

That’s what they want to do with SB 205. But these occupational accident policies are largely unregulated, notoriously difficult to deal with when claims are filed, and have widely varying provisions for medical or wage replacement coverage. As a result the cost of caring for injured truckers is shifted from industry to taxpayers.

If this legislation passes, it would lead to the misclassification of truck drivers as independent contractors, instead of employees, and leave drivers largely unprotected.

As I mentioned before, SB 205 is in committee, and our best chance of defeating this bad legislation is to stop it there before it’s sent to the full N.C. General Assembly for a vote. With the crossover deadline looming, that could happen soon.

Please reach out to the following members of the Senate Judiciary 2 Committee and let them know SB 205 is a bad idea:

Co-chair Senator Tamara Barringer
Republican – District 17
Wake
(919) 733-5653

Co-chair Senator Warren Daniel
Republican – District 46
Burke, Cleveland
(919) 715-7823

Co-chair Senator Shirley B. Randleman
Republican – District 30
Stokes, Surry, Wilkes
(919) 733-5743

Senator Stan Bingham
Republican – District 33
Davidson, Montgomery
(919) 733-5665

Senator Andy Wells
Republican – District 42
Alexander, Catawba
(919) 733-5876

Senator John M. Alexander, Jr.
Republican – District 15
Wake
(919) 733-5850
(Alexander is president of Cardinal International Trucks, a truck sales company.)

Senator Chad Barefoot
Republican – District 18
Franklin, Wake
(919) 715-3036

Senator Bill Cook
Republican – District 1
Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans
(919) 715-8293

Senator David L. Curtis
Republican – District 44
Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln
(919) 715-3038

Senator Joyce Krawiec
Republican – District 31
Forsyth, Yadkin
(919) 733-7850

Senator Jim Davis
Republican – District 50
Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain
(919) 733-5875

Senator Tom McInnis
Republican – District 25
Anson, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland, Stanly
(919) 733-5953

When you call these legislators, let them know that you are reaching out to oppose Senate Bill 205, which is in the Judiciary 2 committee. Urge them to not let big out of state trucking companies push the costs of injured drivers off on onto taxpayers.

Thanks for your prompt action on this important legislative issue.

Retailers, insurers funding campaign to gut workers’ comp benefits in NC, elsewhere

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Walmart, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Kohls and many of the nation’s largest retailers, insurers and corporations are bankrolling campaigns to change workers’ compensation laws and limit benefits nationwide. North Carolina is one of the next states they’re targeting.

According to a recent piece in Mother Jones, the corporations are funding the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation (ARAWC), a lobbying group. ARAWC wants to introduce so-called “reform” legislation that would allow companies to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp programs through what’s called an “option.”

Rest assured, this option will limit injured workers’ benefits and their access to ongoing treatment for their injuries, while saving companies and their workers’ comp insurers millions.

“Employers that opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ comp plans,” according to the article. “But they would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can access medical benefits and wages.”

Only two states, Texas and Oklahoma, give employers the option of setting up their own workers’ comp plans, outside of the state system.  ARAWC has already helped write legislation to make an “option” the law in Tennessee, and the group’s executive director has said the goal is to change workers’ comp laws in every state.

These option plans do not provide the same protections and level of benefits for injured workers. 

Businesses can save millions of dollars by opting out and writing plans with narrow benefits, putting pressure on their competitors to do the same. “It creates a race to the bottom,” says Michael Clingman, a workers’ advocate in Oklahoma, which passed an opt-out measure in January 2014. The state’s oil and gas industry, along with major retailers, such as the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, pushed hard for the change—with help from a lobbyist, Steve Edwards, who now heads ARAWC’s legislative strategy. Dillard’s, a department store chain with 10 locations in Oklahoma, took advantage of the change by requiring workers to report injuries before the end of their shift to be eligible for workers’ comp. Walmart and Dillard’s declined to comment for this article.

We are expecting ARAWC to target North Carolina’s workers’ comp laws soon by introducing more “reform” legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly. ARAWC has already hired lobbyists in our state to push the “option” model with conservative legislators, according to Mother Jones. Since there’s a lot of money at stake, we expect a well-financed campaign to bring a workers’ comp “option” to North Carolina.

When that happens, you’ll probably hear the other side say that employer-run workers’ comp plans will mean less tape for injured workers, shorter wait times for benefits and better medical outcomes. 

But they’ll fail to tell you that you’ll likely be unable to see the doctor of your choice and that their plan won’t pay for things like artificial limbs, hearing aids, home care, funeral expenses, or disability modifications to a home or a car for injured workers. This type of plan is especially bad for workers who are severely hurt and with injuries that cause longterm health problems and complications.

The proposed Tennessee “option” legislation would allow employers to stop paying workers’ comp benefits after only three years, even if the injured worker needs continuing medical treatment and cannot return to work.

We’ll continue to monitor this situation in North Carolina and tell you what you can do to protect workers’ rights here.

 

Workers Suffer From Workers’ Comp “Reform”

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For years in North Carolina and in other states, the insurance industry and big businesses have been pushing to “reform” what they’ve described as an inefficient, wasteful and costly workers’ compensation laws.

Legislators and voters have been snowed by the rhetoric, and the laws have been changed. Dismantled. Stripped down. Dehumanized.

 A system that once protected workers who were injured on the job and provided them with medical treatment and financial benefits to compensate for their injuries and help them on the long road to recovery is now woefully inadequate and harms the people it was designed to protect.

A yearlong investigation by NPR and ProPublica confirms what we have maintained for years: workers’ compensation “reform” has taken a horrible toll on injured workers and shifted cost to taxpayers, while insurance companies’ profits soared and employers’ workers’ compensation costs declined. Workers are being forced into poverty because of their injuries, and their medical care is inadequate.

“Over the past decade, state after state has been dismantling America’s workers’ comp system with disastrous consequences for many of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer serious injuries at work each year,” the investigation revealed.

“They call them reforms. That’s a real insult to workers,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in the report.

You can read and listen to the full NPR report here and view statistics and graphs that show how workers’ rights and benefits have eroded over the last 10 years at ProPublica.

Among the findings:

  • Since 2003, 33 states, including North Carolina, have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify. Florida is the worst, cutting benefits by 65 percent since 1994.
  • Benefits vary dramatically from state to state. The same injury in one state can be worth two to three times as much in one state versus another. For example, a worker who loses an eye in Alabama is entitled to $27,280 in maximum compensation for the injury, compared to $261,525 in Pennsylvania.
  • Because of caps and arbitrary time limits on workers’ compensation, benefits are running out long before people recover. Senate Bill 174, passed in 2013 in North Carolina, changed procedures for appealing an employers’ decision to end benefits.
  • States have given employers and insurers more control over medical decisions, meaning that many injured workers aren’t getting surgeries, medicine and other medical treatment their doctors recommend.  In 37 states, including North Carolina, workers can’t pick their own doctor or are required to use a physician on a list provided by their employer or the insurance company. In North Carolina, injured workers can file a request to change doctors, but changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law have made it much more difficult to switch.
  • Despite claims that workers’ comp premiums are out of control, employers’ costs for workers’ comp insurance is the lowest it has been since the 1970s. And insurers had their most profitable year in more than a decade in 2013, raking in 18 percent in profits. They have succeeded in shifting the cost of caring for injured workers to taxpayers,  through Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid and food stamp programs.

The state of workers compensation in America has changed significantly since 1970, when Congress first established a commission to study state laws as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. According to NPR’s report:

Convened by President Richard Nixon and led by John Burton, a Republican economist and law professor, the commission unanimously concluded that state laws were “inadequate and inequitable.”

The commission made dozens of recommendations that laid the foundation for modern workers’ comp systems: Nearly every employee should be covered. Workers should be able to pick their own doctors. If employees couldn’t work, they should get two-thirds of their wages up to at least the state’s average wage. Compensation should last as long as the person is disabled, with no arbitrary caps. Spouses should receive death benefits until they remarry, children until they graduate from college.

A ProPublica analysis of state laws done in consultation with Burton found that only seven states now follow at least 15 of the recommendations made during the Nixon administration. Four states comply with fewer than half of them.

We will continue to follow this story here on our blog and the Deuterman Law Group Facebook page. Be sure to follow us there for updates, links to additional coverage and more about what you can do to protect the rights of injured workers in North Carolina.

NC’s governor is taking away workers’ rights

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It’s been happening under the radar screen (unless you’ve been following our warnings about Gov. Pat McCrory’s unchecked power grab). The governor, his political allies and big business and insurance industry lobbyists are trying to to dismantle the N.C. workers’ compensation system.

They want to make it harder for injured workers to get the benefits and medical treatment they need and deserve — because doing so will make insurance companies and big businesses richer.

The INDY newspaper in Durham has a frankly frightening article about how McCrory has been quietly skewing the workers’ comp system. To favor business and insurance companies — at the expense of injured people. How wrong is that?

There was the provision in this summer’s final budget bill that reclassified workers’ comp judges, allowing the governor, through the newly appointed Industrial Commission chairman, to get rid of current commissioners and put in less experienced judges who will do his bidding, instead of ruling on workers’ comp cases fairly and considering the law. 

“The logic for reclassifying and replacing these career civil servants is quite clear: to get different results and fewer workers’ comp payouts, you have to replace the referees,” the newspaper reports.

The once balanced industrial commission, with judges representing the interest of both injured workers and business, no longer exists.

Under its new chairman Andrew Heath, “the Industrial Commission now also has a legislative agenda.”

Emails obtained by the INDY earlier this year showed Industrial Commission staffers—employees of an ostensibly impartial judicial body—working intimately with Sen. Thom Goolsby to craft HB369, a law sponsored by Goolsby to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving worker’s comp benefits. Heath’s law clerk wrote to Goolsby that the proposed legislation “had been discussed with, and supported by the Governor’s Office”—which would seem to indicate that the head of a judicial body was working with the Governor to get legislation passed. These records were sent to the INDY with a note from Department of Commerce media liasons that the information in the e-mail about the Governor supporting the legislation was not, in fact, correct. In a written response to questions, Heath denied any impropriety, saying the legislative work was done at Goolsby’s request and that his law clerk had simply made a “misstatement” to Thom Goolsby about Governor McCrory’s support of the controversial legislation.

Before you vote in the upcoming North Carolina midterm election on Nov. 4, you need to read the entire INDY article.

When you do, I think you’ll realize it’s more important than ever to vote for candidates who support workers’ rights and not those who are puppets for the insurance industry. We need checks and balances in our government and we need to stop this underhanded assault on hardworking North Carolinians. and their legal rights.

Download a copy of a our 2014 North Carolina Voters Guide to take with you to the polls on Nov. 4.

Rewarded for Hiring Undocumented Workers?

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The N.C. General Assembly is considering another 11th hour bill this session that would encourage companies to hire undocumented workers to avoid paying for workers’ compensation insurance and workers’ comp claims for injured employees.

N.C. House Bill 369 would not extend workers’ compensation coverage to certain undocumented workers injured on the job. The current law in North Carolina is designed to protect and provide for all workers who are hurt on the job, regardless of their immigration status. But this proposed bill takes those protections away.

Aside from the moral implications of this legislation, if it becomes law, it will have the effect of taking jobs away from legal workers in North Carolina. This proposed law would give companies an incentive to hire illegal, undocumented workers as a way to avoid their legal and moral obligation to provide workers’ compensation coverage to their workforce. 

The bill, which has already passed the N.C. House, is on the calendar to be voted on by the full state senate today. 

So, I’m asking you to act quickly to stop this 11th hour bill from becoming law. Contact your state senators TODAY and ask them to oppose HB369.

Find out who represents you in the N.C. State Senate here. You’ll also find telephone numbers and email addresses so you can contact your state senators today.

NCAJ Speaks Out Against State Budget Bill Provision To Fire Workers’ Comp Judges

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The N.C. Advocates for Justice, a group dedicated to protecting citizens’ rights, is speaking out against provisions in the proposed state budget bill that would affect whether North Carolina workers’ compensation court judges could keep their jobs and how such judges are appointed in the future.

 At issue is Section 15.1.6(b) of the N.C. budget bill, which would dramatically change employment terms for deputy commissioners on the N.C. Industrial Commission. Deputy commissioners are the judges who preside over workers’ compensation cases.

Both the house and senate version of the budget bill include a provision that would allow for the termination of sitting workers’ comp judges within 18 months. If passed, deputy commissioners would also lose their protections under the State Personnel Act, allowing them to be fired for any reason. To keep their jobs, they would also have to file for reappointment and go through a political vetting process.

This would serve to politicize the Industrial Commission, hindering the judges’ ability to rule fairly without fear of political consequences.

“It is always a bad idea to politicize the justice system,” NCAJ president Danny Glover said in a statement. “Injured workers, employers and insurance companies all deserve to know that they will receive a full and fair hearing. Making the judges who hear Industrial Commission claims worry about their job security is a bad path for North Carolina.”

We agree wholeheartedly, and I’d like to ask you once again to speak out against Section 15.1.6(b) of the N.C. budget bill. The N.C. General Assembly has until June 30 to pass a state budget. If you haven’t already done so, call AND email these key legislators about this issue.

This proposed legislation threatens the rights of injured workers in our state.

 

Fighting for workers’ compensation rights

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While our focus is workers’ compensation law in North Carolina, from time to time we like to bring you stories about what’s happening in other states, particularly neighboring ones.

Often, our elected officials will look to other states when drafting new workers’ compensation legislation. One particularly disturbing case study is Virginia.

The former chairwoman of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission calls her state’s workers’ comp system one of the most cumbersome to navigate. It is burdensome to injured workers and their families, and it favors the deep pocket of the insurance industry, while injured people suffer financial ruin and are denied medical treatment they need.

The current system “favors too heavily the insurance industry, and it’s very difficult and cumbersome for workers and their families to navigate,” former chairwoman Virginia Diamond told the Roanoke Times. “Virginia probably has the most restrictive definition of what is a compensable injury in the nation.

Three Virginia women who have been fighting for years to get their loved ones the workers’ comp benefits they deserve have started the Virginia Injured Workers Network, an online support group for injured workers and their family members.

Sadly, the group’s Facebook page is filled with stories of hardworking people who have been denied medical treatment and workers’ comp benefits because of loopholes in the law, delay tactics by insurance companies and a system that favor the insurance industry over people.

One of the founders of the group is the wife of Mike Gentry, a satellite TV installer who suffered a brain injury after falling from a roof. We’re written about Gentry before. He was denied workers’ comp benefits because he couldn’t remember the accident. 

Cathy Hockman is another of the group’s founders. Her son was injured in 2007 when he fell on a concrete floor while working in a Best Buy store. He suffered a brain injury as well as a host of other injuries, including a sprained neck, a broken shoulder, a broken arm, a broken elbow, a broken wrist, and a dislocated knee.

 In a letter to the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, Hockman describes the struggle she endured while advocating for her son and trying to win him benefits he so clearly deserved. You must read the story in Hockman’s own words. It is a story of a workers’ comp system that is clearly broken, and  I’m sure you will find the behavior of the insurance company and its lawyers reprehensible.

I fear that we are moving toward a similar reality here in North Carolina. We have been able to defeat some of worst workers’ comp reform legislation proposed here in our state. But over the last several years, there have been many changes to the N.C. Workers’ Comp Act. 

With their deep pockets, the insurance industry and big business continue to lobby legislators to make further changes to the workers’ comp system in North Carolina. The aim is to strip workers’ of their rights, to shift the cost of caring for injured workers to taxpayers and to pump up insurance companies profits.

 

Last chance: Stop bad bills from becoming law; ask governor to veto HB 74

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The N.C. General Assembly ended its marathon legislative session last week, and now the bills passed by the N.C. House and N.C. Senate are heading to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature.

Appealing to the governor to exercise his veto power is our last chance to stop these bad bills that threaten the rights of injured workers from becoming law.

There’s one particularly bad bill on its way to the governor — House Bill 74. If it becomes law, it will be terrible for injured workers.

Please take a few minutes today to call Gov. Pat McCrory and ask him to veto H74. The governor’s phone number is (919) 814-2000.

House Bill 74 is an omnibus bill that threatens not only injured workers in our state, but it also has some very scary environmental provisions.

In addition to calling the governor about the HB 74 veto, I’d also like to encourage you to send him an email and a message on Twitter at @PatMcCroryNC, using the hashtag #VetoHB74.

We must act quickly and decisively if we want to stop this bad bill from becoming law.

Tell the Governor to Veto House Bill 74!

Thank you for all your efforts this legislative season to protect citizens of North Carolina from bad laws.

“Reform” Creates More Pain for Injured Workers

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The phrase “workers’ compensation reform” itself is a lie.

Generally, the word “reform” has a positive meaning.

re-form (noun) — the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory

But with the type of workers’  compensation “reform” that has been happening in North Carolina, other states and other countries at the behest of the insurance industry and big business, there have been more wrongs committed than righted.

From the perspective of injured workers and companies who want to take care of employees who have been injured on the job, sometimes permanently, the idea that things are better after so-called “reform” is laughable.

The only improvements realized have been improvements in insurance company profits because they’re no longer required to provide basic medical care and adequate financial compensation to injured workers.

In Australia, “workers’ compensation reform” means that 70-year-old former aircraft engineer Glenn Hammond, who developed tinnitus, “constant and incurable high-pitched ringing in his ears” from his job, now has to pay $6,000 out of pocket for new hearing aids — a benefit previously available to him under workers’ comp laws.

In Virginia, “workers’ compensation reform” means the family of Mike Gentry, a satellite TV installer who suffered a brain injury after falling off a roof, had to fight for two years to get the workers’ comp insurance company to accept his claim and cover his costly medical treatment. And though his injury is lifelong, his workers’ comp coverage runs out after 10 years.

In New Mexico, “workers’ compensation reform” means that dairy workers, whose jobs are rigorous and extremely dangerous, are not protected under the state’s workers’ comp laws. So when they are injured on the job, there are no protections.

And those are just a few examples; there are plenty more. Behind every statistic, real lives and real people are being affected, and not in a good way. Injured workers are not better off and their lives have not improved because of workers’ compensation reform.

But things are getting better every day for wealthy insurance companies, while every day the future is getting bleaker for hardworking people who have suffered serious injuries and lost their livelihoods as a result.

We have to stop these so-called “reform” efforts in North Carolina and protect the few rights still available to injured workers in our state.

During this legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly has considered several bills pertaining to workers’ compensation. Senate Bill 112. Senate Bill 174. House Bill 1011. Senate Bill 10.

We can only wonder what is next.