Ohio Legislature considers denying Workers’ Comp to some workers

The Ohio Legislature is considering a bill that would exclude some workers from Workers’ Compensation protection.

The Ohio House of Representatives in May passed a budget bill–HB 27– for the state agency that oversees the state’s Workers’ Compensation program. The bill contains an amendment that bars undocumented immigrant workers from receiving Workers’ Compensation benefits.

The bill was sent to the Senate where it was referred to the Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee.

That committee held hearings on the bill on June 13.

Prior to the hearing the Central Ohio Worker Center mobilized people to oppose HB 27.

“This bill is bad for all Ohio workers, and will work against those employers who comply with the law,” states the Worker Center in a posting on its website. “If this bill passes, it will reduce the incentive for companies to provide safe conditions for its workers—and serious injuries among Ohio workers in the most dangerous industries will increase.”

Immigrant workers work in some of Ohio’s most dangerous industries. There are two in particular that rely heavily on immigrant labor–agriculture and food processing.

According to the National Agricultural Work Survey, 78 percent of agricultural workers in the US are immigrants and according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “agriculture ranks among the most dangerous industries in the US.”

Meat and poultry processing plants also rely heavily on an immigrant workforce.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “immigrant workers often constitute a significant portion of the worker population on poultry farms and poultry slaughter and processing facilities.”

CDC goes on to report that these workers have a high incidence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, skin disease, and job related accidents.

Reported injuries in the meat and poultry processing industry are 40 percent higher than in other industries.

By all accounts, undocumented workers make up a significant percentage of the immigrant workers in these two industries.

These workers as well as thousands of others would be left unprotected should HB 27 pass in its present form.

A letter from Ohio faith leaders to senators on the committee, states that denying Workers’ Compensation to one subset of workers exposes them to unacceptable risks and “is an affront to common sense and our common faiths.”

But it’s not just undocumented workers who will suffer if HB 27 passes with its limitations on Workers’ Compensation intact.

In another letter to the senators, food justice advocates point out that “HB 27 will create a subclass of workers who are outside the normal protection afforded to them by Workers’ Compensation. This could encourage employers to subject workers to greater physical risk without fear of legal or financial consequences. Cutting corners with regard to workplace safety will ultimately make all workers less safe.”

According to the Workers Center, saving money by scrimping on safety will give unscrupulous employers a competitive advantage over other employers, which could result in a lowering of safety standards for all workers regardless of their immigration status.

As HB 27 is taken up by members of the Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee, there is some evidence that senators are having doubts about establishing a two-tiered Workers’ Compensation program.

Sen. Jay Hottinger, who chairs the committee, expressed doubts about how the ban on Workers’ Compensation would work in practice.

Hottinger  told reporters after the committee hearing ended that it would be difficult to track people’s immigration status for the purpose of denying them Workers’ Compensation benefits.

“How do you get it beyond just making political statement or a policy statement and actually impact change on it, that’s yet to be determined,” said Hottinger.

Hottinger’s committee will take up HB 27 again on Tuesday, June 20.

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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.