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Opponents of workers’ comp legislation say it hurts workers

Gary B. Gray • Mar 13, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Attention Tennessee employees: a grass-roots movement is under way to shine a light on legislation that would reform the state’s Workers’ Compensation Division — reform that appears to benefit insurance companies, increase public oversight, pulls private attorneys out of the mix and severely cuts funding for workers who incur on-the-job injuries and disabilities.

Though championed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce as a business-friendly bill, opponents, including independent business owners and workers, as well as union members and public employees, have described the changes to be like “driving a stake through the heart” of workers statewide.

Tennessee Citizen Action will host an informational meeting about the proposed legislation from 6:30 -9 p.m. Friday at the Carver Park Community Center, 322 W. Watauga Ave.

“The bill basically would allow employers to throw away injured employees,” Mike Lane, a volunteer with the group said Wednesday during a discussion with about 15 people from various counties at the Northeast Tennessee Democrat Resource Center. “It shifts the responsibility of unsafe workplaces from employers and the insurance industry to employees and taxpayers. It removes workers’ compensation cases from impartial courts and moves the decisions into the political arena, and it creates a new bureaucracy controlled by the executive branch of state government.”

Lane said the Nashville-based group is non-partisan and nonprofit, and all Northeast Tennessee legislators have been invited to attend the meeting. Lane said the group just wants to get the word out and that an attorney with an insurance company there to help explain.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the bill would require the division, which is under the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, to mathematically redefine how an employee is compensated.

The bill also would amend large sections of current state statute — actions Nashville attorney Rocky McElhaney took exception to Tuesday in front of House Consumer & Human Resources Committee Chairman Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson.

“The cost driver (expense) is what’s being paid to doctors and insurance companies, not employees,” he told Eldridge. “Under this bill, maximum payouts would be drastically reduced. The maximum adjustment in the new plan is less than half the current average. It also makes it easy and cheap to fire people.”

As Eldridge told McElhaney his time was about to expire, the attorney reminded the legislator about the meeting they had had with some of his constituents earlier in the week when Eldridge was caught on television saying the bill was going to be pushed through.

“Mr. McElhaney, the comment made was ‘The bill is moving on,’ ” Eldridge replied.

The plan would allow employers to pick doctors from a state pool to settle rates of impairment. It also would discontinue using, for example, a percentage of an injury that affects the eye or the arm to determine the amount of damage, and thus compensation, calculated for that body part.

Instead, should an eye incur damage or be disabled to some extent, that same percentage would be used in the calculation for the entire body, meaning the employee would receive much less. Think of it as a much thinner slice in a pie chart.

Bruce Dotson, Sullivan County Democratic Party vice chairman, said Wednesday that everyone should be concerned about injured workers not being taken care of.

“There’s been a reduction in injuries each year since 2004, so I don’t see the need to do this,” he said. “The injured employee will have no real representative. Private attorneys will be cut out, and the buck stops with the governor. If you can’t return to work, the state system will assign to you a lesser amount. If you refuse, the state can fine you.”

Dotson said the governor would appoint a workers’ compensation “czar,” who would choose all workers’ compensation judges (today, judges are elected); review all decisions; determine allowable treatments and appoint all members of the appeals board.

Under the current law, injured workers who get better receive additional benefits if the employer does not offer them their job back. The new system removes that incentive and makes it easier and cheaper for an employer to simply fire an injured worker and hire a younger or healthier worker.

“The bill would make it harder for Tennessee to find qualified workers,” Dotson added. “This will increase, not decrease, the jobless rate as employers decide any injured employee is a liability — no matter his or her employment record.

“It would be an incentive for me to leave the state. It doesn’t not get spending under control, and it doesn’t help workers. It helps insurance companies. Under the new law, workers who are injured but can return to work would get 25 percent less compensation. If they are terminated (because they no longer could perform their tasks), they would receive 60-to 75-percent less.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, Rep. Micah Van Huss R-Jonesborough, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, were not immediately available for comment.

The bill is expected to breeze through the House Consumer & Human Resources Committee. It will go next to both the Senate and House Government Operations committees.

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