The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, December 16, 2011

GOP’s ‘absurd’ workers’ comp reforms nearly set

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – Anti-worker workers’ compensation reform measures pushed by state Republicans have separately passed both the Michigan House and Senate – but at press time, differences in the two bills had yet to be worked out by a conference committee.

For workers injured on the job, both bills are bad. The only difference is that the Senate version, which was passed Dec. 7, “carves out” an exemption for police officers and firefighters.

House Bill 5002 and Senate Bill 0708 slash benefits for workers injured on the job by subtracting earnings that a worker could have earned from an injured worker’s benefits, regardless of that worker’s ability to find a job.  The bill also gives even more power to employers to dictate where an injured worker can seek treatment.

The legislation, said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, “would turn the workers’ comp system on its head by changing the law so that employees would not only lose their workers’ compensation by the wages they earn when they return to work, but by the amount of wages they could possibly earn at a job not even offered to them. This concept is absurd and would penalize workers based on no fault of their own.”

In the run up to their vote, Senate Democrats fought for amendments to soften the effects of the bill, including calling for exemptions for veterans and hospital workers, seeking to strike the $2,000 vocational rehabilitation fee charged to already cash-strapped injured workers, and shortening the 28-day moratorium on injured workers being able to seek a second opinion outside of company-sanctioned medical personnel.

The Senate vote adopted the measure 20-16, with all Democrats voting no. To their credit, Republican Sens. Tory Rocca (R-Sterling Heights), Darwin Booher (R-Evart), Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale), Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek), Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) and Mike Green (R-Mayville) joined Democrats in opposition.

A number of senators pushed for the inclusion of other hazardous jobs to be in the exemption along with police and firefighters, to no avail. State Sen. John Gleason (D-Flushing), long a friend of the building trades, pushed for a construction worker exemption.

“The greatest attraction bringing businesses to Michigan is our skilled and talented workforce,” Gleason said. “The past 11 months have seen the Republicans attack and diminish the rights of these highly-regarded workers. The Republicans have been focused on giving breaks to corporations, and have no regard for the onerous burdens they are placing on people who are injured while doing their job. This bill once again relegates our workers to second-class status.”

As we’ve reported, Southfield attorney Marshall Lasser summed up the proposed legislation as follows: “If a skilled worker earning $1,200 per week gets an injury which disables him permanently, but he is able flip hamburgers at Burger King for $400 a week, his workers’ compensation is reduced by one-third – even though he applies for 50 jobs and can=t get hired.”

Michigan Chamber of Commerce Health Policy and Human Resources Director Wendy Block said the reform measure “is a solid first step towards updating, reforming and modernizing key areas of the law, which will provide increased certainty for employees and employers, keep premiums affordable for job providers and generally make Michigan – and its workers’ compensation system – more competitive.”