BY AL MCAFFREY
I don’t think you can put a price on losing a limb, but that’s what conservatives at the Capitol are trying to do among other things with their latest attempt at workers compensation reform.
SB 1062, this year’s attempt to “overhaul” the state’s workers compensation system again, passed out of the Senate along party lines last week. The bill would replace our current workers compensation system with an administrative one like the one in Arkansas.
I’m frustrated with the Legislature in that it seems like every year there’s a workers comp bill that’s going to overhaul the system and then come to find out those measures hardly did anything.
This bill will make significant changes, but I don’t believe they’re necessarily good changes. Mainly, I don’t think this bill looks out for the best interests of injured workers.
Overall, this measure will cut most benefits by an average of 25%. You’d think that premiums would be cut by that same amount, but they’d only be reduced by around 12%.
To give you a few examples as I mentioned before, amputation awards, including awards for hearing loss, will be cut by 23% under this measure. The bill also cuts Temporary Total Disability maximum payments by 30% when the worker is off work on doctor’s orders and can least afford it.
Permanent partial disability [PPD] benefits are not allowed if the injured worker returns to his job or an equivalent job for even one day. This is blatantly unconstitutional and invites litigation for wrongful termination.
For example, a worker could have two back surgeries from an injury that no one contests, return to work for one day in a wheelchair, and then either his doctor or the employer could decide the worker could not physically perform the job. Under this bill, the employer would owe nothing for PPD. No reasonable person can believe this provision is fair and just. No other state has any such provision.
The bill would also drastically reduce PPD payments even if the worker can’t return to work. As an example, an employee making $500 weekly would see their award reduced by 25% for a back surgical fusion.
If a worker can’t return to any job, his Permanent Total Disability payments would be cut up to 42%. For instance, if a 57-year-old worker is injured and found to be permanently and total disabled, and lives to age 72, his workers’ comp benefits will be cut 42%.
The bill would negatively affect widows whose death benefits would be cut as well. If a worker is killed on a job in which he was earning $600 weekly and leaves a 55-year-old wife, and if the wife remains unmarried and lives to age 80, the widow’s death benefits will be cut by 32%.
These are just a few examples of the changes that are being proposed in SB 1062. I don’t believe that good Oklahoma employers want to cut benefits so drastically for their injured workers who suffer legitimate injuries and for widows who are trying to pick up the pieces after their spouses’ deaths.
This bill is a direct assault on the rights and benefits of Oklahoma workers who are injured on the job. The cuts in benefits are deep and unfair.
This bill is not only unfair to injured workers but it’s also bad for employers and taxpayers.
– Sen. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City, represents District 46 in the Oklahoma Senate