AUGUSTA, Maine — As lawmakers began work on a proposal to revamp Maine’s workers’ compensation system Wednesday in Augusta, some Democrats were skeptical about plans to cap how long injured workers can collect benefits in some cases.
The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee’s work session followed a Feb. 17 public hearing that ran for almost seven hours and saw a number of disabled workers testifying against the proposal.
Proponents at the hearing — including about a dozen lawyers and representatives of industry groups — said the proposal would clear up problematic areas of the law, thereby reducing litigation and taking costs out of the system.
On Wednesday, Rep. Timothy Driscoll, D-Westbrook, noted that he has served on the Labor Committee for eight years and had not heard of the problems the proposal seeks to address before this year.
“I haven’t heard the big outrage around the workers’ compensation system not working in Maine,” said Driscoll. “But all of a sudden this year, I’m now hearing the system is now rife with problems, and this is the first time I’ve heard it in eight years on [the Labor Committee]. It all just seemed to have popped up this year.
“I’m really concerned about the cap that you laid out here,” he said.
Driscoll was talking to Paul Sighinolfi, executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board, who came up with the proposal after a series of stakeholder meetings last year.
Sighinolfi, who worked as an attorney on workers’ comp cases before taking over at the board a year ago, said he has seen the problems for decades. The system isn’t in “total disarray,” he said. But a particular section of the law is “unworkable, fosters litigation and is unfair to both employees and employers.”
“That’s the problem to the system,” he said.
Sighinolfi’s proposal would, among other things, cap the amount of time claims may be filed for people who are partially but permanently injured to 11.8 years.
Now some of those types of injuries are capped at 10 years, depending on their severity. The most severe are not capped.
Any changes would not affect those who already are collecting workers’ comp benefits.
The proposal makes other changes. Those collecting workers’ comp now get 80 percent of their weekly benefits, capped at $634, which is 90 percent of the statewide weekly average wage after taxes. The proposal would increase the cap to 100 percent of the average wage, raising the weekly payout by $70.
Sighinolfi also provided lawmakers with additional numbers to put Maine’s system in a regional perspective. New Jersey caps benefits at 600 weeks, Connecticut at 520, Massachusetts at 260 (with potential to go up to 520), New Hampshire at 350, Vermont at 405 (550 for spinal injuries.)
States in the region also cap how much a worker can collect per week, with a high of $1,287 in New Hampshire down to $600 in New York.
Sighinolfi also reported that at least 212 people have been categorized in the last two years as being fully incapacitated because of their injuries — unable to work and so able to collect benefits for as long as they are incapacitated. That part of the law won’t change under the proposal.
Laura Backus Hall, a representative of the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which sets the workers’ comp rates in 38 states, including Maine, told the committee that a quick analysis showed the proposal would change the overall system costs by about 2 percent — either up or down. But she said it likely would increase costs by about 1 percent, or just under $2 million a year.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, said the committee would hold another work session on the proposal next week, though it wasn’t yet scheduled.