Attack on workers’ comp hits snag in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that a portion of a new state workers’ compensation law is “unconstitutional.”

The Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act enacted in 2013 allows employers in the state to opt out of the state’s Workers’ Compensation system and provide an alternative benefit plan for workers injured on the job.

The commission’s written decision states that “at first blush,” the new workers’ compensation law appears to require opt-out plan benefits to be as good or better than traditional workers’ compensation benefits, but “this is decidedly not so.”

“A closer look. . . reveals that the benefit plans permitted to be used to opt-out establish a dual system under which injured workers are not treated equally,” states the commission’s order. “The appearance of equal treatment under the dual system is like a water mirage on the highway that disappears upon closer inspection.”

For more than a century, workers’ compensation has provided workers with a safety net to protect them from the loss of income due to job related injuries.

But in the most recent decades, employers have been looking to fray the workers’ compensation safety net and shift its remaining costs onto workers and the taxpaying public.

State legislators in most states have been willing to help them.

“Since 2003, legislators in 33 states have enacted changes to workers’ compensation laws that either reduce benefits or make it more difficult for workers to qualify for it,” states a letter from ten US lawmakers to the US Department of Labor urging the department to start paying attention to this trend.

The lawmakers write that these states have been engaged in “a race to the bottom.”

The latest leg in this race to the bottom came in 2013 when Oklahoma passed its opt-out law.

Efforts organized by the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers’ Compensation (ARAWC) to pass similar opt-out laws are underway in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

Mother Jones reports that Walmart, Lowe’s, Safeway, and other large corporations are funding ARAWC.

The idea for creating an opt-out alternative to workers’ compensation originated in Texas.

Texas in 2001 overhauled its workers’ compensation laws.

Texas never required employers to purchase workers’ compensation insurance, but those that did purchased their coverage through a traditional workers’ compensation system.

In 2001, the state allowed employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation system and set up alternative benefits plans for those hurt on the job.

Since then, 119,000 Texas employers, about one-third of the state’s employers, have opted out of traditional workers’ compensation and established their own company-controlled benefit plan.

A recent analysis of Texas’ opt out plans conducted by NPR and ProPublica shows that opt-out benefits are substantially lower than those paid by traditional workers compensation plans.

For instance, the average benefit paid by opt-out plans for the loss of a hand is $98,000; the national average is $145,000.

In addition, opt out plans give more control to employers. Employers can choose which doctors can examine a patient, which treatments will be approved, and which disabilities can be denied compensation. Employers also can terminate benefits at their discretion.

While the opt-out alternative is the latest attempt to weaken the workers’ compensation safety net, it has been preceded by others.

A report from NPR and ProPublica entitled the Demolition of Workers’ Compensation describes the impact of these efforts.

“Over the past decade, state after state has been dismantling America’s workers’ comp system with disastrous consequences. . .  The cutbacks have been so drastic in some places that they virtually guarantee injured workers will plummet into poverty,” write the report’s authors,  Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes.

Workers haven’t been the only ones to feel the sting of these so-called reform efforts. Taxpayers are paying more too. Workers without adequate workers’ compensation protection often end up relying on Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and other public assistance.

In their letter to the Department of Labor, the ten concerned lawmakers note that as a result of the dismantling of the workers’ compensation safety net, “employers now cover only 20 percent of the overall cost of a workplace injury” while workers, private health insurance plans, and taxpayers cover the rest.

“The magnitude of the cost shift to taxpayers from employers coupled with a race to the bottom in substandard benefits should not be ignored any longer,” write the lawmakers.

 

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Teachers to testers: “Let us teach; let our students learn”

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union, parents, and community supporters rallied on March 10 to support teachers at two Chicago schools who are refusing to administer the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test (ISAT).

The union organized the demonstration after the Chicago Public Schools’ top administrator said that the teachers could be disciplined if they did not administer the test.

“Administration of this meaningless test means students will lose hours of valuable classroom instruction time, disrupting as many as ten school days,”  reads a petition supporting the boycotting teachers.

So far more than 2,500 parents at 69 schools have signed opt out letters telling school administrators that their children will not be taking the ISAT.

Karen Lewis, president of CTU, said that the union is supporting the parents’ opt out movement and will defend teachers who refuse to administer the test.

According to Lewis, the ISAT isn’t being used to evaluate student achievement, isn’t being used to determine school funding levels, and serves no useful purpose.

“You should not feel like you need to subject (your students) to unnecessary testing and anxiety,” said Lewis. “Life is hard enough for our children. Let’s make it better. Let’s take (the time scheduled for testing) to teach and to bring some joy back to education.”

In addition to the ISAT, Chicago students in a school year will take the NWEA MAP, Interim Benchmark Tests, REACH Performance Tasks, ACCESS, NAEP, pilot Common Core, and other standardized tests.

The proliferation and questionable value of standardized testing has created a backlash among parents and educators.

“Standardized tests are used to rank children as first and second class citizens,” said Anne Carlson, a teacher at Drummond Montessori where teachers are refusing to administer the ISAT. “We need to rise up and take back our schools.”

Carlson was speaking at the March 10 rally held at Saucedo Scholastic Academy, the other school where teachers are refusing to administer the ISAT.

Also speaking at the rally was Sherise McDaniel, a parent who signed an opt out letter excusing her child from the ISAT.

McDaniel urged Chicago Public School administrators to take a pledge to support students, parents, and teachers. That pledge includes the promise “to treat all students equally and not to tolerate any punishment against children who did not take the ISAT” and “to respect teachers’ right to free speech and to speak against the misuse of standardized tests.”

“No teacher should be disciplined for teaching,” said McDaniel.

Since the Saucedo and Drummond teachers announced that they would not be administering the ISAT, support for them has been growing.

They recently received a letter of support from London teachers who belong to the National Union of Teachers.

“The world over, corporations and corporate politicians want to turn our kids into ranked numbers to help them privatize education and narrow the curriculum,” reads the short letter of support. “Stand up to the corporate bullies, stand firm against the ISAT.”

Chicago labor has also taken a stand to support the Saucedo and Drummond teachers.

The Chicago Federation of Labor, whose 320 plus affiliates represent more than 500,000 union workers, unanimously passed a resolution supporting the right of teachers to exercise their first amendment rights to boycott the standardized tests.

According to John Kugler, CTU’s representatives to the CFL, one reason that CFL delegates supported the resolution is that the irrelevant ISAT takes up to two weeks away from student instructional time.

Much of the Chicago school year is now consumed by preparing for and taking standardized tests including NWEA MAP, new Interim Benchmark Tests, REACH Performance Tasks, ACCESS, NAEP, pilot Common Core, and more.

Eleanor Griffin, an 8th grader, recently told the Chicago Board of Education how its emphasis on standardized testing has affected her education.

Three times a year we prepare for the NWEA; three times a year we take the test, she said. It’s very stressful.

“NWEA is changing the idea of school for the worse,” said Griffin. “Instead of being a place of meaningful learning, schools have become places of stressful testing.”

Devoting so much time to standardized test may not help students, but it has helped the bottom line of the corporations who design standardized tests.

Back in 1955, standardized test sales were slightly more than $10 million in 2014 dollars.

After the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law that mandated the use of more standardized tests, “the value of the testing market (was) anywhere from $400 million to $700 million,” reports PBS’ Frontline.

That was early in the new millennium.

In 2013, Pearson, one of the leading standardized test designers and the designer of the ISAT, reported sales of $4 billion for its North American division.

At the time, John Fallon, Pearson’s new CEO, complained that North American sales were flat, which would mean that the company would have to lay off workers.