September 14, 2016 Kim Krisberg 1Comment

In a big win for workers, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court has ruled that state law allowing businesses to opt out of traditional workers’ compensation is unconstitutional.

At ProPublica, Michael Grabell writes that the ruling now leaves Texas as the only state that lets employers pull out of workers’ comp in favor of creating their own alternative plans. Last year, Grabell, along with Howard Berkes at NPR, investigated the new opt-out trend, finding that such workers’ comp alternatives typically come with fewer employee benefits, more restrictions and no independent oversight.

In reporting on the recent Oklahoma court ruling, Grabell writes:

Bob Burke, a longtime workers’ comp attorney who has filed several successful challenges to Oklahoma’s new law, called opt out “the biggest attack on the American worker” since he started practicing law.

Had the Supreme Court not acted, the Oklahoma opt-out law “would have deprived injured workers out of necessary surgeries and weekly benefits,” he said in an email. “Opt out also would have allowed companies to shift the cost of paying for work-related injuries to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”

Bill Minick, a Dallas lawyer whose company PartnerSource wrote most of the Oklahoma opt-out plans and about half of those in Texas, said in a statement that the ruling was specific to “Oklahoma’s unique constitution.” He vowed that his company and other supporters would continue their efforts to promote the alternative plans in other states.

“We believe it’s critical to provide better care and benefits for injured workers, decrease the number of disputed claims and significantly decrease insurance premiums and claim costs for all employers,” he said.

The Oklahoma case involved an employee at Dillard’s department store who injured her neck and shoulder while lifting shoeboxes in 2014. Dillard’s, which had opted out of workers’ comp and created its own benefit plan, initially paid for her medical care. But the company later denied her claims, insisting that any further damage and surgeries she might need were due to a preexisting degenerative condition and not her injury at work.

Read the full story at ProPublica.

In other news:

Reveal: Will Evans reports that the demolition and asbestos removal industry is “ripe” for racial discrimination, with interviews and lawsuits showing that certain government contractors don’t want to hire black workers and often treat Latino workers poorly. For example, Evans writes about WMS Solutions, a Baltimore-based staffing agency that provides workers for government asbestos and demolition projects. A Department of Labor complaint states that the company favored hiring Latino workers, paid women less than men, and did nothing when Latino workers experienced racial slurs on the job. On another company, Potomac Abatement, Evans write: “Potomac Abatement, for example, would regularly deny water and breaks to Latino workers, while providing them to black workers, the lawsuit said. Latinos who complained would be sent home for the day without pay.”

WRDW (Augusta, Georgia): The local station reports that OSHA has fined HP Pelzer Automotive Systems as well as staffing agency Sizemore Incorporated more than $700,000 for continuing to expose workers to fall, amputation and electrocution risks. During inspections, OSHA cited the auto parts manufacturer with 12 repeated citations, such as failure to repair electrical equipment and failure to protect workers from thermal skin burns, as well as eight serious violations. According to the article, HP Pelzer qualifies for OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program. The article quoted William Fulcher, OSHA’s area director in the Atlanta-East Office, who said: “”This is the third inspection of the HP Pelzer plant where OSHA has identified numerous hazards, many repeated, related to unsafe working conditions. Employees, whether permanent or temporary, should not have to be concerned whether they will get sick, injured or killed while providing for their families.”

Slate: Henry Grabar reports on new research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research that found New York City’s paid sick leave law, which passed in 2013, hasn’t been the job killer that many opponents feared. Grabar reports that the research, based on a survey of 350 random businesses, found that most businesses perceived the sick leave law as a “nonevent.” Also, 85 percent of employers said the law had no effect on business costs, 91 percent reported no reductions in hiring, and 94 percent said the law had no impact on productivity. Grabar writes: “Did a labor force of hypochondriac slackers cause businesses to relocate to Nassau and Westchester Counties? It doesn’t look like it: New York City’s share of metropolitan employment has actually increased, slightly, in the two years since the revised law took effect.”

Washington Post: Mark Maske reports that the NFL is launching new concussion-related initiatives, including providing $60 million to develop technological improvements to protect players as well as $40 million to fund medical research on head injuries. Among the intended outcomes of the initiative is to create safer helmets for players. Maske writes: “The league’s top player safety official, Jeff Miller, told a congressional committee in March that there ‘certainly’ is a link between football and the degenerative brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But others in the sport quickly disputed that, with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying it was ‘absurd’ to believe that a link has been firmly established between football and CTE.”

Denver Post: Aldo Svaldi reports on new research from the University of Denver (DU) that found increasing Colorado’s minimum wage from $8.31 to $12 would inject $400 million into the state economy and raise living standards for one in five households. The research also found a wage hike would have minimal impacts on inflation and employment. Coloradans are set to vote on a minimum wage hike this November. Svaldi writes: “Other concerns around a minimum wage hike are impacts on child care costs and whether some families will lose more in public assistance than they gain in income. What the DU study found is that an area’s cost of living is more influential in determining child care costs than an area’s minimum wage. Places such as Boulder and Denver shouldn’t see much change, but in areas where child care workers are making the current minimum wage, child care costs could go up 9 percent to 10 percent over the next four years.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

One thought on “Occupational Health News Roundup

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