Lawmakers challenge the new workers' comp law, saying it's great for businesses, but what about the injured workers? Fox 25 spoke with both sides.
"To me, it's something that Oklahoma businesses and Oklahoma consumers need," says State Senator Kyle Loveless, (R)- Oklahoma City. He's a fan of the new workers' comp law. He says it's great for business owners. Instead of a judicial system, it's now administrative. It allows employers to opt-out if they provide equivalent benefits. "Basically, it reduces the overhead, and then therefore, the savings can be transferred on to business owners," says Sen. Loveless. He says it will keep more cases out of court. "The first step now is not to go to the courthouse. The first step now is for them to go to mediation," he explains.
But, State Representative Emily Virgin is challenging whether the law is constitutional on several grounds. "The law is very vague and ambiguous, so that doesn't give employees much notice about what their rights are. That violates their due process rights. Also, the reduction in benefits would be a violation of their due process, and would violate another provision of our Oklahoma Constitution that guarantees them a remedy," says Rep. Virgin. Another problem? She says it violates the single-subject law, because the law has three main parts. "The first one is the administrative system. The second one is an arbitration act, and the third one is the opt-out provision that allows employers to opt out of the entire system," she says.
"The workers comp reform bill is all encompassing of worker's comp. It's all dealing with workers' compensation reform. So, it is single subject," counters Sen. Loveless. "If the people that are critics of this are successful, it's going to make it that much more difficult to handle any big issue in the future because if we try to tackle any large issue, we're going to have to take it piece by piece," he says.
But, Rep. Virgin says the single-subject issue is very important. She says the 'opt out' language was presented in 2012 and did not pass. She says people who wanted to vote against it again this round could not, because it was wrapped up in the rest of the bill. Rep. Virgin says the system in which an employee now applies for benefits is also different, and unfair. "If they weren't happy with the benefits they received from their employer, they would have to appeal to a panel that was set up by the employer, so that could be three people that are employed by that company, who definitely wouldn't be neutral," she explains.
Sen. Loveless says, for years, Oklahoma has had one of the most expensive and inefficient workers' comp systems in the country-- hurting businesses. Governor Mary Fallin agrees. She released this statement: "I'm disappointed with the legal challenge filed to Senate Bill 1062, just two weeks after an independent evaluation shows the measure will result in a nearly 13-percent reduction in overall workers' compensation premium levels next year. For decades, Oklahoma has had one of the most expensive and inefficient workers' compensation systems in the country, a constant obstacle for business owners looking to expand operations or create more jobs. Senate Bill 1062 completely overhauls our flawed workers' comp system, dramatically reducing the costs to businesses and freeing up private-sector resources that can be invested in jobs rather than lawsuits. Additionally, our reforms ensure injured workers are treated fairly and given the medical care needed to return to work. This is an important pro-growth policy that will help us attract jobs and build a stronger and more prosperous Oklahoma."
"The idea behind every workers' compensation case is to get that person back to work. The idea is not to give them a jackpot for the rest of their life," says Sen. Loveless. He says the new law cuts workers' comp insurance premiums and makes Oklahoma more business friendly.
"While I agree with those goals, we shouldn't do that at the expense of the injured worker," counters. Rep. Virgin.
Sen. Loveless notes a local business owner and friend. "He has an office in Oklahoma and an office in Arkansas. Before this bill went through and before the whole package thing happened, workers compensation rates in Oklahoma were ten times what they were in Arkansas," he says. He goes on to note a friend who works for the Mustang School District. "He told me they will literally be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in workers' compensation payments. That's money that can go right back to the school. A lot of businesses, if they had lower cost of doing business, would reinvest that into the workers," says Sen. Loveless.
But, Rep. Virgin disagrees. "I would not necessarily believe that if a business did save that money that it would go to benefits to employees," she says.
Legal analyst David Slane says he thinks the court will keep the new system, if workers get the same treatment across the board, even if the company opts out and chooses to find its own system. "If you have two companies competing, and one opts out and gets a cheaper system, they're able to unfairly compete with another company," Slane explains.
But, Rep. Virgin wants the law to be struck down. "Then we can go back to the drawing board and come up with something else that will solve the problems for businesses, but not on the backs of the inured worker. Missouri has set up a very successful administrative plan, without cutting benefits to the injured worker so drastically," she says. Rep. Virgin and Sen. Harry Coates (R-Seminole) are pitching this system as an alternative.
A hearing is set for Oct 16.