With all the publicity about workers’ compensation generated by a new bill in the Legislature, LD 1571, sponsored by Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden — which will have a very negative effect on Maine workers — it is important that we remind people in Maine what workers’ comp really is and why it is important.
If you don’t own a business or have never gotten injured on the job, chances are good you probably don’t know a whole lot about workers’ comp or how it affects you. However, if you work, you should have an understanding of what it is in case you need it someday.
Workers’ compensation laws were adopted in every state in the early 1900s as a response to the increasing number of injuries that occurred in workplaces and the success injured workers had in lawsuits against their employers for their injuries. The workers’ compensation laws were created to protect both businesses and workers.
The laws are supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job and unable to continue to work prompt payment of lost wages and medical expenses. At the same time, the laws also protect businesses by eliminating all workers’ rights to sue for injuries. So if a worker gets injured on the job and is unable to work, no matter if it’s completely the company’s fault, he or she has no right to sue. Instead, he or she is eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
In Maine, benefits are paid to injured workers at 80 percent of after-tax income with a cap of $634.13 a week. That caps stands regardless of the income of the employee. For comparison purposes, other New England states have higher caps at roughly $1,000 a week — and over $1,250 in New Hampshire. The length of time injured workers can receive benefits depends on the level of the injury. If it’s a temporary injury, the benefits last for the length of that injury. If it’s a permanent injury, the length of benefits is determined by the severity of the injury.
All businesses in Maine are required to have workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. The businesses pay an annual premium for the insurance which then covers the monetary and medical benefits for injured workers. Premiums have gone down substantially in Maine over the last 20 years — dropping 50 percent since 1993. In fact, in just the last few months, premium rates were dropped twice — each time by more than 3 percent, saving Maine’s businesses more than $13 million a year.
A typical claim goes like this: When a worker is injured on the job, whether it’s a traumatic accident or a slow-developing injury, the worker has 90 days to report the injury — even if it’s not debilitating yet. Once it’s reported, the employer files the report with the Workers’ Compensation Board.
Right now there is a program that helps injured workers understand the workers’ compensation system and the rights it gives them. The proposed bill would do away with this program and leave injured workers to fend for themselves against corporations and insurance companies with full-time lawyers on staff.
When the injury causes the worker to lose time at work, he or she files a claim for the employer to pay. The employer then has 14 days to agree to the claim and have the insurer begin paying benefits or file a notice of controversy to deny the claim. If a company denies the claim, the appeals process can take more than a year before a decision is made and the employee receives any benefits.
When it all goes as planned, workers’ compensation works well for everyone. The injured employee is covered for lost wages and medical costs right away. He or she doesn’t have to lose his or her job, house or health because of the injury. When the injury is healed, he or she goes back to work. This program also works well for businesses. When an injury happens, it doesn’t hurt the business’s finances. In addition, the business doesn’t have to worry about getting sued.
In short, workers’ compensation — when working correctly — provides protection for workers and businesses. No matter how safe your workplace is, injuries can happen. And workers’ compensation is there for you when they do. That is why it is hard to understand why Rep. Cushing is sponsoring a bill that will make it harder for injured workers to get their benefits.
Emery Deabay is a member of the United Steel Workers Local 1188 and is vice president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council. He lives in Bucksport.