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Workers’ compensation change no help to hurt workers

Posted April 09, 2012, at 4:23 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2012, at 6:21 p.m.

As Maine’s 125th Legislature enters its final days before adjournment, the LePage administration has yet another proposal that would hurt workers, this time workers injured on the job. Consider the following scenario:

After spending five years of training, a 25-year-old electrical journeyman has a herniated disc in his back for which he undergoes surgery. Scar tissue forms as a result of the surgery, requiring a second surgery. Eventually, because the disc has deteriorated so badly because of the injury, it is removed entirely and his lower back is fused. As a result of the fusion, as is often the case, the disc above goes and requires a fourth operation.

Because of the four operations and resulting symptoms and limitations, the journeyman is permanently disabled from performing his occupation. Typically, he would be defined as having a 20 percent permanent impairment and so under the LePage proposal, his benefits will automatically be terminated after ten years at age 35, even if he is unable to find employment or even if he is only earning 1 percent of what he was making ten years earlier.

The LePage administration appointee Paul Sighinolfi, executive director of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, has presented numerous proposals during this session to the Labor, Commerce Research and Economic Development committee. The last, however, despite claiming “compromise” and “moderation” veered far in favor of insurance companies. In fact, no Maine business saw this as important enough to come to the public hearing and testify in favor of Sighinolfi’s proposals. All unions, workers, injured workers and worker advocates testified in opposition.

On April 4, the insurance industry proposal, LR 2787, was voted out of the committee by a partisan 7-6 vote. If approved by the full Legislature, it will harm potentially thousands of injured Mainers.

Currently, if a worker suffers more than approximately 12 percent whole body impairment, they typically receive benefits for the duration of the disability. Under the insurance industry proposal, anyone who suffers between 12 percent and 25 percent impairment will be out of luck after ten years, no matter the situation, regardless if they are impaired for 15 years, 20 years or the rest of their life.

For the most badly injured workers, above 25 percent impairment, this proposal allegedly offers a safety net. Here’s how you get it: first, despite being incredibly impaired, you need to work for two years prior to the 10 year deadline; second, some bureaucrat must judge your work “commensurate” with your earning capacity; and third, your earnings during those two years of work in years eight through ten must be “50 percent or less of the pre-injury average weekly wage.”

How about that! It may take a minute to wrap one’s head around this pig in a poke. For example, if you made $800 a week ($20 an hour) in 2013, then 10 years from now in 2023 dollars, you will be cut off from workers’ compensation benefits if you make more than $399.99 in a week in 2023 dollars. Inflation will do the dirty work. And don’t forget that bureaucrat who will be prodding around to make sure you stay “commensurate” with your “earning capacity.”

When you do the math and consider inflation, it’s hard to imagine anyone qualifying for this and certainly not workers who make less than $20 an hour at the time of injury.

Adding to the outrage of this misguided proposal is that the Maine Workers’ Compensation system is currently doing great for insurers and employers (even if not always for workers). According to the Maine WCB annual report released in 2012, “compensation rates have dropped 56 percent since 1993; MEMIC has recently declared a $12 million dividend to Maine businesses; and the board has reduced the assessment to employers by approximately $3 million over the past two years, all of which contribute to one of the more stable workers’ compensation systems in the country.”

During testimony, Sighinolfi spoke at length and eloquently about compromise, saying about himself that he can say with a “straight face and pure of heart” that this is a compromise “somewhere in the middle” and that he’s helping workers.

However, despite all the beautiful words, the rhetorical flourishes and evoking the need for Maine to be “more competitive,” at the end of the day if this proposal is passed, real people who have suffered terrible workplace injuries will be thrown under the bus while insurance companies reap the benefits.

And there will be no whitewashing that truth.

Please, contact your senators and representatives and ask them to oppose this terrible workers’ compensation bill.

Jack McKay is director of the Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, which supports workers and farmers in Eastern Maine.

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