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

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.

 

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