Thursday, February 19, 2009

Workers compensation

Increase in benefits in Senate Labor committee

The long effort to win improved benefits for people hurt on the job in Wyoming has entered the stretch run. The Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee listened Wednesday to a long explanation of HB 54 Workers compensation amendments and began taking public testimony on it.

Rep. Jack Landon, the chairman of the House Labor Committee, shepherded the bill through the House and ultimately won passage on a unanimous 60-0 vote. Rep. Landon would have explained the bill for the Senate committee, but he was ill. His advocacy was missed. Instead, Department of Employment Director Gary Child presented the bill to the committee. Child struck a fairly neutral tone, an appropriate stance since agency representatives are officially prohibited from lobbying legislation.

But the department’s analysis of the fiscal impacts of the benefits increases, especially its estimate of the cost of a cost of living adjustment on benefits paid permanently disabled workers, is cause for worry. Several industry representatives have raised concerns that the COLA may cost too much.

We disagree and will challenge the agency’s projections of cost. Those injured workers should not be driven into poverty by inflation. With just 184 people getting permanent total disability benefits, the $1 billion Workers Compensation fund will not be threatened by a 3% COLA.

Father testifies

The committee did take testimony from James Henderson Wednesday, a mechanic whose son-in-law was killed in a horrific oil field accident last year. Henderson drove from Casper Tuesday night so he could make his case to the the committee that the death benefits paid to survivors are inadequate. (That's a photo of him outside the committee room Wednesday morning talking with Marcia Shanor of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association.)

He asked the committee who calculated the formula to determine how much a person is worth. The benefits offered his daughter caused her to abandon plans to move to a home large enough for her family, which includes four children under age 9. Her pursuit of a college degree also may have to be given up, he said.

Although other members of the Henderson family are helping her financially, “none of us are in any financial position to change where they live.”

Henderson also told the committee that the system is “ is wrong morally and ethically” because it protects employers when they are negligent.

"Any employer can put someone in harm’s way at work as long as they don’t do it maliciously." - James Henderson

“Any employer can put someone in harm’s way at work as long as they don’t do it maliciously” and know that nothing will happen to them if that worker is killed or maimed, he said.

If someone gets killed, the company says only, “Oops, we’re really sorry,” Henderson said. It’s wrong for the system to send a message that there’s no responsibility.

“That doesn’t make sense to me in any form. I can’t understand it.”

Contact committee members, please

The ESPC urges supporters of increasing benefits to contact the members of the Senate Labor Committee – Sens. Charles Scott, John Schiffer, Bill Landen, Rick Hunnicutt and John Hastert – to urge them to support the benefit increases, especially the COLA on indemnity payments and the increase in death benefits. The committee resumes its hearing of the bill Friday morning at 7:30. Injured workers especially should consider attending if possible.