From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 8, Number 47 - February 12, 2009
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Worker-comp bill changes receive support

by Derek Farr

Less than a week after the House Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 to kill House Bill (HB) 273 that would have made it easier for drilling contractors’ employees to sue energy companies, the House passed a bill that would increase injury and death benefits under worker’s compensation insurance.

HB 54 was introduced by the Interim Joint Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee in December and it has plenty of backing. In his state of the state address, Go.a Dave Freudenthal said “We, frankly, should be embarrassed at the current levels (of death benefits). They haven’t been looked at in 25 years, and it is time we increase those.”

One of the first increases bumps up the monthly payment to the child of a dead or permanently disabled worker from $150 to $250 and it extends that coverage from 18 years old to 21. In addition, it allows a child enrolled in an educational institution to receive benefits until age 25. For the spouse of a worker killed on the job, the bill extends payments from 54 months to 100 months, and for a worker’s parent(s) it decreases the threshold for benefits from receiving “substantially all” to “at least one half” of their financial support from a dead or disabled worker. Plus, the bill extends benefits to parents from 30 months to 60 months.

Additionally, the bill’s payment recalculations would increase monthly benefits for the majority of beneficiaries. It also extends vocational rehabilitation benefits from four to five years and it offers worker compensation insurance to partnerships and sole proprietorships where current law limits worker comp to corporations and limitedliability corporations.

The new law is fairly unambiguous for dead and injured workers and their dependents, but what it will cost businesses is less certain.

Department of Employment Director Gary Child said he doesn’t know if HB 54 would increase rates.

“That is a question that nobody has a crystal ball to respond to,” he said. “There are so many variables the only answer I can give you is: I don’t know.”

Child said the fund is currently in very good shape after achieving solvency two years ago, but a change in benefits – among other changes – could alter that. A complex laundry list of factors influences the worker’s comp fund: The economy, utilization of claims, actual number of injuries and many other factors dictate the fund’s financial wellbeing.

Child says a growing industrial sector in the last five years paired with static benefit payments since 1994 has grown the fund to $1 billion.

But he has no idea how the fund will react to a precipitously shrinking economy.

Perhaps the biggest variable is the Legislature. If the Legislature dips into the $1-billion fund, all bets are off. Gov. Freudenthal warned against that action by suggesting the Legislature “be thoughtful and narrow” when considering tapping into the worker’s comp fund.

Regardless, the bottom line is that HB 54 will cost an extra $12 million according to Child, which, under the current conditions, does not suggest a near-term increase in employer premiums.

Unanimous support

When it comes to worker’s compensation, an increase in benefits is about the only thing legislators agree on. Last week HB 54 cleared the house with a 60-0 vote.

Other issues are less agreeable.

In an impassioned hearing over HB 273 last Wednesday, energy industry representatives were pitted against workers’ rights advocates. After hours of heated testimony, the Judicial Committee killed the bill, 5-4. By contrast, HB 54 hasn’t faced any organized opposition.

To the contrary, HB 54 was elicited by HB 273 opponents as an appropriate remedy for dead or injured workers and their dependents.

Casper attorney Pat Murphy, who opposed HB 273, said a lack of appropriate benefits was the catalyst for HB 273. He said when workers or workers’ dependants receive inadequate death or injury compensation they look for other financial sources such as suits against site operators. Wyoming law eliminates the need for workers to sue their employers for death or injury benefits. Under the current system, a worker is not required to argue his/her case to a judge or jury. The compensation is formulaic and immediate. But as quid pro quo for the speedy compensation system, Wyoming workers have foregone their right to sue their employer (negligence notwithstanding).

But according to Murphy the system requires just and adequate benefits to properly function.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, echoes Murphy’s sentiments.

“Lets get the benefits updated,” he said. “We have no problem with that. If (workers or workers’ dependents) need more money, there is a bill to increase the formula and rates when somebody has been killed or hurt.”

Workers’ rights advocates also support the bill, although they do not believe increased benefits are a substitute for increasing operator liability.

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