Former cop Bill Fournier told the Maine state legislature last week about the time he responded to a crime scene and found a 4-year-old girl burned alive in an oven. The grisly 1984 murder sent his life off the rails, Fournier said, to the point where he once put a revolver in his mouth and cocked the hammer.
It isn’t something Fournier would like to revisit, but a subject dear to him was on the table: Reform of workers compensation laws.
Joined by other police officers, firefighters and paramedics, Fournier testified against a Maine bill that would diminish the role of psychiatric and emotional damage in determining a worker’s right to compensation after an injury. The hotly debated measure, sponsored by state Rep. Kerri Prescott (R), has drawn support from the Maine Chamber of Commerce and insurance interests and opposition from labor groups. Many workers, particularly first responders, have argued that mental and emotional injuries should carry no less weight than physical ones when it comes to compensation.
Kevin Gillis, the head of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Coordinating Council, an organization that represents businesses and insurers and backs the measure, says Fournier’s emotional testimony epitomizes a lot of the heated discussion surrounding workers comp in Maine and elsewhere right now.
“People can understand just enough to comment on it, but they still don’t fully understand it,” Gillis told HuffPost. “A lot of people don’t understand the significance or lack of significance of these [reforms]. You have to have a good grip on the whole statute.” Gillis insists the reforms are aimed at lawyers who manipulate the system, and he believes the proposed changes wouldn’t have affected Fournier’s case.
There’s a flurry of legislative activity around the country -- notably in Maine, North Carolina, Illinois, and Montana -- geared towards reining in the costs to employers of workers compensation claims. Maine Governor Paul LePage (R), who’s already sparked a high-profile battle with the state’s labor groups, went so far as to mention workers comp reform in his inaugural address. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D) recently told his state's enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce that workers comp reform will happen “this year.”
While some bipartisan efforts exist, Republicans generally push the reforms, which business groups and insurance trade associations support. And though many of these discussions have been brewing for years, the ongoing efforts seem to dovetail nicely with the anti-labor zeitgeist fostered in Wisconsin and Ohio, as stories of able-bodied workers gaming the system now abound in legislative halls.
A representative of the Workers Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), which represents claimants’ attorneys, told HuffPost that “workers’ rights and benefits, nationwide, appear to be under greater attack this session.”
North Carolina serves as one of the prime battlegrounds, where a Republican-sponsored bill would cap the amount of time an injured worker can collect compensation at 500 weeks. Right now there is no time limit. The state's GOP has tried unsuccessfully to implement caps before, but now that the party controls both the House and the Senate for the first time in a century, the measure may have its best shot.
A study released by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute last year deemed North Carolina’s workers comp costs among the highest of 15 states studied. Proponents of the reform argue higher taxes and insurance premiums for employers discourage businesses from settling or staying in the state, and the system is ripe for abuse without caps. Earlier this month, a scrum of injured workers and labor groups showed up at the state's assembly steps to protest the proposal.
“We believe there’s a number of provisions being proposed that would hurt workers,” said James Andrews, president of the AFL-CIO for North Carolina. He warns that the bill could make it harder for injured workers to change doctors and that it would redefine what “suitable” employment means. “It would require workers to take Walmart-type jobs in an effort to quickly return to work,” James said.
Sorting out the real costs and savings of reform hasn’t been easy. Ray Evans, the director of the North Carolina Rate Bureau, the state-chartered non-profit that determines insurance rates, said the impact of a cap isn’t clear and the discussion tends to veer off into emotionally charged territory.
“In this legislative environment, it’s difficult to separate the anecdotal evidence from what we consider more factual evidence,” said Evans, whose bureau doesn’t take a position on the possible reforms in North Carolina. “We hear all the time about people on disability out playing golf or basketball. We don’t know if that’s urban legend.”
In Illinois, members of both parties have vowed to tackle the workers comp issue. Quinn recently told the business community that reform could save local companies half a billion dollars. Calling for an overhaul of the state’s compensation commission, Quinn said, "Nobody's going to get scalped in the reform -- someone might get a hair cut -- but nobody's going to get scalped."
Although a few reforms would be possible in Illinois, one may fundamentally change the definition of a compensable injury, by requiring the worker to show that the accident was the "primary" factor in the resulting disability. The state head of the AFL-CIO has called this provision “deal-breaker” for labor. WILG argues that one Illinois bill would “effectively abolish" the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and put cases with the state’s circuit courts rather than with its compensation commission.
Last week, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) signed a bill pushed by the Republican-led legislature that will change the state's workers compensation system significantly, including limiting benefits to a five-year period (two-year extensions are possible) and making those injured during a break ineligible. Proponents said the measure will cut expenses by 25 percent in a state known to have both some of the highest workers comp costs in the country and some of the highest workplace injury rates.
The Montana reforms came after five years of negotiations, and it’s unlikely the bills in Maine and North Carolina will move swiftly given the resistance from labor groups. In the meantime, those following the developments expect more heated debate and hyperbolic talk in the statehouses.
Many people probably won’t understand their state's compensation systems -- or the implications of ongoing reforms -- until the time comes to file a claim. “For the most part, folks don’t have a good idea on the differences in workers compensation programs,” said Evans of the N.C. Rate Bureau. “You can ask a hundred different people on the street how it all works, and I’m not sure you’d get an informed answer.”