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The Importance of Being Honest

The Importance of Being Honest

The news today that Mississippi Representative John Hines is sponsoring a bill to address that state’s woefully low workers’ compensation benefits is yet another reminder of the egregious cut in workers benefits our own legislature made effective last year. Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and now Oklahoma are driving our higher paid workers into financial ruin as they try to heal from an on the job injury and return to their jobs. The Oklahoma Legislature could restore sanity to our own system and avoid numerous needless court challenges by passing House Bill 1509 sponsored by Representative Emily Virgin of Norman. Adoption would address the devastating benefit cuts workers have faced since February 1st of last year.

One year ago Oklahoma SB 1062 became fully effective. It was touted as an historic achievement that would save money for employers while making the workers’ compensation system easier to access and navigate for injured workers. History was made, but not the kind that was touted. It was an unprecedented attack on the benefits Oklahoma families rely upon when a family member who is injured on the job receives temporary payments before returning to work and, or, suffers a permanent disability for which compensation is now paid in virtually every state in the nation except Oklahoma. SB 1062 results in an unconstitutional benefit system and we are often asked why we assert that claim. I’ll explain.

Workers’ compensation systems, at their core, are an agreement between workers and their employers (this is sometimes referred to as the grand bargain). Employees receive benefits set by law on a “no-fault” basis. That is, the cause of the injury and possible fault of the employee or employer is not an issue. Because of this agreement employees are not allowed to bring lawsuits against employers, a right guaranteed by Article 2, Section 6 of the Oklahoma Constitution. That section reads:

The courts of justice of the State shall be open to every

person, and speedy and certain remedy afforded for every wrong

and for every injury to person, property, or reputation; and

right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial,

delay, or prejudice.

In other words, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for those suffering covered injuries while on the job. But what happens when the benefits set by the Legislature no longer rise to the level of a remedy? The law becomes an unconstitutional act denying guaranteed rights to injured workers.

Many decisions of the new Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission will be appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court alleging this benefit system is not a remedy under the Oklahoma Constitution. It will place a burden on our Court system but, more importantly, a huge burden on injured workers being injured every day when they can no longer receive an adequate remedy in the system and are forced to wait years for the Court system to right the wrong they have endured.

This is the heart of the dishonesty: While touting non-existent system efficiencies, temporary disability payments to one-third of our workers have been cut, sometimes as much as 50 to 60%, depending on how much a worker earned when he or she was injured. Permanent partial disability payments were cut for all workers who did not actually suffer an amputation by 50 to 90%, depending on whether an employee had an offer to return to work or not. Incredibly, a worker being injured after February 1, 2014 with a severe enough back injury to require surgery received a 100% reduction in permanent partial disability benefits if he or she is able to return to work (the reduction was a mere 60% for those not able to return to work).

We believe for a remedy to be exclusive it has to be at least something of a remedy. If that worker had a job before she was injured, and the same job afterward, but had a 50% cut in pay while she was healing and no compensation for her permanent injury (which very well could affect her future earnings), where is her remedy in the law? This benefit scheme can surely not be the remedy that Article 2 Section 6 provides for our citizens.

It is time for our Legislature to enact HB 1509 and restore honesty and constitutionality to our workers’ compensation system for all Oklahoma employers and employees.

Michael Clingman

Oklahoma Coalition for Workers Rights

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