April 10, 2012

Maine Voices: Last-minute workers' comp bill would hurt the badly injured

The legislation benefits insurance companies, to the detriment of public safety workers and others.

By RICHARD WURFEL

PORTLAND — As a matter of statistics, most Maine workers will never experience a workplace injury that requires more than immediate or temporary medical attention. Most will not be injured or become ill resulting in lost time from work.

Like all other states, our workers' compensation law provides limited wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured or becoming ill arising "out of or in the course of our employment." As workers, it is our exclusive remedy.

Most people do not know that comp laws are also known as the "compensation bargain," or nicknamed by many labor advocates "employers' protection acts." In exchange for assured and limited coverage by employers, workers do not have the right, under any circumstances, to sue an employer even in the face of that employer's negligence.

Occupations with workers experiencing the worst workplace injuries and illnesses are varied and include but are not limited to firefighting, law enforcement, emergency medical services and nursing, as well as logging, construction and truck driving.

I have had the privilege of serving as a lay advocate for and assistant to firefighters and other workers injured on the job for over 30 years. It has not been an easy task, because injured workers face a myriad of hardships and hurdles that extend well beyond their careers into their personal lives. Those who are the most injured often face a grave battle with their employer's insurance companies to be awarded the benefits they deserve. I have also spent countless days, as have many others, battling in Augusta when insurance companies have repeatedly tried to raise their profits on the backs of Maine workers.

Maine has had a "workers' compensation act" in various forms since 1915. The most recent changes, in 1992, were the result of a bipartisan process and have been generally acceptable to both labor and employers since that time.

Now comes the 125th Maine Legislature. In its first session, lobbyists hired by workers' compensation insurance companies authored a bill that included a 19-part attack on workers' benefits. Badly injured workers testified at a hearing on the bill that lasted for over eight hours.

After some study, an amended version of the bill was introduced by the executive director of the Maine Workers' Compensation Board. This version pared down the 19-point version and was being considered by a committee, until last Wednesday, when to the shock of labor advocates, a totally new version of the bill was presented without any notice to anyone with only days to go in this legislative session.

This final version will hurt the class of injured employees who are the second worst of the injured and ill. They are those employees who could be your sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, relatives and friends, or who could be yourself.

The new version of the bill would end benefits for the aforementioned workers after 520 weeks unless they could "jump" through a ridiculous and nearly impossible set of "hoops." Most of them would not be able to physically jump anyway, because the bar for their permanent impairment rating would be raised from the present 12 percent to 25 percent. These are in many cases the amputees, wheelchair-bound -- including workers rendered paraplegic -- as well as public safety employees suffering from traumatic stress injuries because of their exposure to critical incidents during their careers.

In order to seem palatable, it slightly raises the benefit for all injured workers. This slight increase for all will come at the expense of this second most severely injured population, who after their benefit period expires will be left out in the cold.

If this bill is passed, it may serve employers in the form of lower rates, but more importantly, it will be a windfall for insurance company profits. Incidentally, since the 1992 changes, employer's comp insurance premium rates have fallen by nearly 56 percent. In October and November of 2011 alone, rates dropped 7.5 percent. But now the insurance companies want more.

Labor workers comprise the backbone of our Maine economy. Public safety workers keep us safe. When young people choose careers in the labor or skilled labor trades, they should have an expectation of protection if they are injured or become ill. If they are injured badly enough and are unable to finish their work life in their chosen career, they should be protected. The present law provides that protection. Our collective conscience should not allow for a reduction of the present benefit level.

Labor advocates maintain hope and faith that Maine legislators share that conscience, in their last week of service as elected senators and representatives, and give this bill the appropriate and conscionable "thumbs down."

Richard Wurfel was a Portland firefighter from 1977 until 2010 and now serves the Portland Professional Firefighters Association, Local 740, IAFF as the staff assistant to the president for workers compensation and health insurance.

-- Special to the Press Herald

 

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