Gov. Janet Mills has signed a bill into law that will increase workers’ compensation benefits for some injured workers while leaving several contested elements of the state’s current system in place.

The new law, born out of a compromise between supporters and opponents of workers’ compensation reform, makes a few significant changes such as increasing the maximum allowable weekly benefit by 25 percent and adding a cost-of-living adjustment for fully disabled workers.

However, it leaves out other proposed reforms such as repealing the 500-week limit on death benefits to families and lowering the burden of proof for on-the-job psychological trauma.

“I’m very disappointed that we were not able to accomplish more,” said Carol Sanborn, a paralegal based in Topsham who was heavily involved in the push for reform. “I thought we would make more progress, but that said, this compromise is a significant win for Maine workers and is more progress than we’ve seen in decades.”

Last week, Republican members of a joint legislative committee reversed course and accepted a compromise bill that proposed moderate reforms to the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Republicans on the Labor and Housing Committee favored no changes to the system, but were outnumbered by Democratic members who threatened to pass even more sweeping reforms unless the Republicans agreed to a compromise.

The resulting omnibus bill was forwarded to the full Legislature late Thursday with a unanimous recommendation from the committee. It was approved by both the House and Senate without roll call votes and signed into law Monday alongside the state budget and dozens of other bills.

Tony Payne, senior vice president of Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co., said the new law will undoubtedly add to insurers’ costs. Still, he indicated that the compromise bill was much better for insurers than possible alternatives during a legislative session in which reform seemed all but certain.

“The good news is that attempts to uncap benefits, make some benefits retroactive and increase attorney involvement were all rejected,” Payne said. “We also understand that Gov. Mills has no interest in making further changes in workers’ compensation law while serving in the Blaine House unless they are by consensus.”

The new law makes a few key changes to the workers’ comp system such as increasing the maximum weekly benefit for workers injured on the job from 100 percent to 125 percent of the state’s average weekly wage starting Jan. 1. As before, beneficiaries only receive up to two-thirds of the maximum, since workers’ comp benefits are not taxed.

It also adds annual cost-of-living adjustments of up to 5 percent for injured workers on full disability after a five-year waiting period. Under the previous law, there were no cost-of-living adjustments.

Another change sought by advocates of reform that made it into the new law is doubling the allowable period to file a workers’ compensation claim from 30 days to 60 days following an on-the-job injury.

Still, reform advocates had sought many other changes that did not make it into the compromise bill signed by Mills. In all, more than two dozen bills proposing various changes to the state’s workers’ comp system were submitted this legislative session.

One major change that did not make it into law was a proposal to remove the 500-week maximum term for families of workers killed on the job to receive death benefits. Still, the new law does add the ability for parents of workers killed on the job to receive death benefits for up to 500 weeks if there are no other dependents.

Advocates for reform have said past changes to Maine’s workers’ comp system that were designed to lower insurance costs have created an unfair system for injured workers in the state. But their opponents argued that the current system has provided much-needed stability to employers following a crisis period in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

The latest push for workers’ compensation reform by pro-labor groups came more than 25 years after Maine imposed various restrictions on compensation to alleviate a situation in which the state’s workers’ comp insurance had become the most expensive in the nation and insurers were leaving the state in droves. Since the reforms of 1992, workers’ compensation costs in Maine have fallen toward the middle of the pack – to No. 12 by one measure and No. 19 by another.

 

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