Senate approves bill to change injured workers' fund

Monday, April 1, 2013 at 9:12pm

Legislation that seeks to change the way injured workers' claims are considered passed the Senate Monday evening despite opponents who say it would reduce benefits and remove impartiality from the judgment process.

The measure, which is part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legislative package, was overwhelmingly approved 28-2. The companion bill is set for the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

"I feel confident that these reforms are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive but are going to benefit the workers of this state," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is carrying the bill.

The hearings have been criticized by labor groups for being put on the fast track without input from the group representing people who stand to lose benefits. About 50 people gathered at the state Capitol last week to protest the legislation. There were chants of "We want justice" and signs bearing slogans like: "Don't Gut Workers' Comp."

Despite the opposition, the measure seems to be moving through the Legislature — like a "freight train," as one Republican lawmaker described.

The Nashville Scene reported last week that Rep. Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson didn't realize the Legislature's streaming video equipment was recording him when he made the comparison in the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, which he chairs.

"I'm going to take care of that bill," Eldridge said. "That freight train is going off."

He later told The Jackson Sun that his comments were taken out of context.

"This workers' compensation bill is moving through, and we feel strong that it's a good deal that we got the votes to pass it. We want (bills) to move like a freight train, in a very careful way," he said. "I want to get this bill to the House floor and debated by all the members."

One criticism is that injured employee cases would no longer be heard in court, but by special judges selected by the person the governor picks to run the workers' compensation division.

Sen. Doug Overbey, one of two senators who voted against the bill, said the current system for handling cases is sufficient.

"We already have judges across the state ... that see to these claims," said the Maryville Republican. "We have the processes already in place."

Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson cast the other dissenting vote.

Last week, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told protesters that the new system would add an unnecessary administrative branch to government. The Ripley Democrat called it "something we certainly don't need to do."

"We have the court system that's working well," Fitzhugh said.

State AFL-CIO spokesman Jerry Winters agreed.

"It limits access to the courts, which we consider is a basic American right, to be able to air your grievance in front of an impartial jury," Winters said. "It puts bureaucrats and politicians in control of the process."

Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group, said the proposal also removes certain factors used to determine the amount of money an injured worker should receive.

"It was very flexible based on each case," she said. "Well, they're moving that to sort of a bridge system, where they're really just saying no matter what you do ... and no matter what your injury is, you'll only get this amount of money."

Later in the week, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville told reporters he's considering a proposal to do away with the bill.

"Working people are just getting a big boot in the butt here," he said. "Not having workers' comp is better than what they're doing."

However, Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group favors the governor's proposal, particularly the provision for hearing cases.

"We're very pleased with it," he said. "This is the most fundamental reform that anyone can remember."

The last time the state's workers' compensation system was changed was under vastly different political circumstances. In 2004, it was Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen pushing for changes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, and against the wishes of their traditional allies among trial lawyers.

That year the bill passed the Senate 28-4 after supporters defeated several efforts to make major changes. It went back to the House for concurrence on minor amendments and was sent to Bredesen for his signature into law.

The measure included a prompt pay requirement to ensure injured workers receive their benefits more quickly.

"I've always felt this was not about employers versus working people," Bredesen said at the time. "It is about how you create jobs, how you provide opportunities for people to have jobs."

8 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 4/1/13 at 8:21

What a shame, of what the GOP is doing to our state and our workers. Once the unions are kicked out or lost power, the corportations can move in and destroy whomever or whatever they want to do. This bill lets them do it. This is thanks to our Governor and the GOP led Legislative Branch. The people will not have any power or anyone to go to for justsice. and the Businesses have it all. I can't believe that the GOP is letting this happen. They will also be hurt in the long srun.

By: Barkley on 4/2/13 at 4:37

What an outstanding job the GOP is doing for our state and our workers. Once the unions are kicked out or lost power, the workers will benefit exponentially. This bill lets them do it. Thanks to our Governor and the GOP led Legislative Branch. The people will regain the power and justice. Be proud and excited the GOP is letting this happen.

By: Loner on 4/2/13 at 6:06

TN is a right to fire state, so this diminution of workers' benefits is totally in line with a pro-business, anti-worker attitude that seemingly pervades the backward, Southern, formerly confederate states.

The goal of the Tea-bagger addled GOP is to return modern society to the days of Charles Dickens...when Scrooge-types ruled and the Bob Cratchits lived in constant fear of losing their lives and limbs..their livelihoods and their dignity.

The South is famous for hosting an under-educated, docile and gullible population that routinely votes against its own best interests....this is more evidence to back up that claim....in Dixie, the masses remain asses.....and they love it....Yeeeee! Haaawww!

By: Loner on 4/2/13 at 6:40

Since Workers' Comp is being gutted in the Coonskin Cap state, one can expect that TN-based employers will no longer seek to improve worker safety by investing in expensive but safer machinery....why invest in safer equipment, when the employers will not be held nearly as accountable, as before, for injuries or deaths caused by old and unsafe equipment? Paying reduced claims will be cheaper than investing in new plant.

All these GOP efforts to strip workers of their rights and benefits may attract some sleazy outfits to the state, to exploit the situation; but this is not the way to bring Tennessee into the 21st century...this is going back a century or two...to the days of Charles Dickens....in my view, no long-range good can come of it.

By: Barkley on 4/2/13 at 6:43

TN is a right to fire state. This allows employers to get rid of employees who fail to perform their job. This allows employers to get rid of employees who are lazy and are looking for handouts. Most importantly, it allows employers to reward employees who come to work every day, show up on time and work hard with competitive pay and above average benefits.

The goal of the liberals is to give entitlements to lazy people.

The South has become educated and is outlawing the liberal handout agenda which is bankrupting the nation.

By: Loner on 4/2/13 at 6:52

Barkley...surely you jest?

Sarcasm is sometimes difficult to recognize in an online comment. I'm sure, Barkley, that you are aware of the fact that all the benefits that American workers take for granted today were all won at the bargaining table...Scrooge did not voluntarily provide those benefits...collective bargaining was and remains a rising tide that lifts all boats....people tend to forget that fact.

When some folks in a society are working for zero wages, as was the case in the ante-bellum South, it decreases the value of every free person's labor....poor Southern whites never understood that aspect of the feudal system that they fought and died to preserve....they still don't get it.

By: Loner on 4/2/13 at 7:06

Barkley keeps on barking: The goal of the liberals is to give entitlements to lazy people.

Sounds like evangelical pulpit droppings....mixed in with some FOX News.... regurgitated Rush Limbaugh.

The goal of the Tea Party Controlled Republicans is to give entitlements to corporations and associated special interests.

The Republicans work for management...the Democrats work for labor. The GOP works for Scrooge...the Democrats work for Bob Cratchit....or something like that.

By: Loner on 4/2/13 at 7:12

More barking: The South has become educated and is outlawing the liberal handout agenda which is bankrupting the nation.

Yeah, right. Creationism in the Science curriculum...rampant homophobia...an obsession with firearms....and still ignorant as to the casus belli of the American Civil War....the Southern educational system lags behind the rest of the nation....and it's getting worse, not better.

The Southern states are not net donor states to the US Treasury, on the contrary, they are beggar states...sucking more out of Washington than they put in....and the fools talk about secession....they'd be broke in a matter of weeks, without federal aid.