April 12, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: Workers comp bill caps benefits of seriously injured employees

Dean Harding

In the final days of the session, the Legislature is considering a bill that would make significant changes to our workers compensation system, affecting injured workers throughout Maine.

The bill does not yet have a document number or even an official text, but the language in the proposal voted forward by the Labor Committee would leave injured workers out in the cold. It also would be harmful for Maine small businesses. This bill must be rejected.

I know from experience what it is like to get hurt at work and have to deal with the workers compensation system.

Until I was severely injured in 2010, I didn't realize how broken and unfair the system is. Workers comp is a difficult system for injured workers to navigate, while insurance companies make workers jump through hoops. Other workers who also have suffered injuries have told me they experienced the same challenges in dealing with our workers compensation system.

The insurance companies challenge almost every effort by injured workers to get the benefits we deserve.

The proposal before the Legislature will harm severely injured workers by drastically reducing the disability benefits available to them.

Our current law provides a safety net of benefits for severely injured employees who must deal with permanent loss of earnings. The proposed legislation essentially eliminates that safety net. It caps benefits for almost all injured workers at 10 years, even if their injury still prevents them from returning to work.

Almost all workers most deserving of long-term wage replacement protection would lose it under this proposal and will have nowhere to turn.

Workers Compensation Board Executive Director, Paul Sighinolfi, acknowledged this at the April 4 work session of the Labor Committee when he said, "There will be a lot of people with serious injuries who qualify for extended benefits right now who will not qualify for extended benefits under this proposal."

"People will slip through the cracks under this proposal," he said repeatedly.

I see this issue from two different sides. In addition to my status as an injured worker, I'm also a small business owner. I understand what it is like to cover workers compensation insurance costs for my employees.

This bill is good for the insurance companies, but not for Maine businesses. The insurance industry is hiding behind the façade of "business" and the economy, when in fact this bill is bad for business and bad for the economy.

When people get injured at work, they can't earn a paycheck. When they are out of work because they are hurt, they can't make their house and car payments, they can't pay their taxes, and they can't buy anything. How can they go out and support local Maine businesses?

When they lose everything they've worked for, and when they can't support their own families, they have to go on welfare, and it is all very bad for the economic situation in our state.

The situation just shifts costs from insurance companies to taxpayers.

Allowing this bill to go through allows insurance to dodge responsibility at the expense of the taxpayers and leaves workers with nowhere to go.

Indigent criminals get a free lawyer. Indigent injured workers get nothing.

If one of my employees got hurt at work, I would feel as if I should hire a lawyer for him to protect him from my insurance company.

This proposal punishes severely injured workers who go back to work, but experience permanent wage loss from their injury. Under current law, if you've been severely injured and find a job, but you cannot earn as much as you used to before you were hurt, workers compensation will provide ongoing wage replacement to cover a portion of your lost wages.

This proposal would halt wage replacement for essentially everyone after 10 years, even if someone is back to work but is losing earnings as a result of their injury.

This proposal makes no sense. Workers comp costs for employers are going down, declining 56 percent since 1993 and more than 7 percent in 2011 alone.

What is the problem here? Why would our elected officials pass legislation that will harm injured employees when there is no problem?

Workers compensation saves tens of thousands of Maine people from poverty. This bill before the Legislature is a windfall for the insurance industry but will harm injured workers and undermine the system as a whole. It must be rejected by the Legislature.

 

Dean Harding is a Maine native who has lived in Oakland for more than 37 years. He is a small business owner and has been a member of the United Steel Workers' Union for about 20 years.

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