The "Great Bargain" Is Put At Risk
By: Russell T. Golla, President, Wisconsin Association for Justice
Earlier this month Representative John Spiros of Marshfield, who is also a member of the board of directors for the Trucking Industry Defense Association, released a misleading op-ed on Assembly Bill 501 which, if passed, would overhaul Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation system. He claims the bill would, “benefit honest, hardworking employees.” The record must be set straight.
He says the worker's compensation system was created to provide benefits for workers hurt on the job and get them back to work as soon as possible. This is only half the story. He ignores the fact that the worker's compensation system was also implemented to benefit employers.
Because of the “Great Bargain,” – followed today by a majority of states – both employers and employees benefit. By substantially limiting their financial liability for work related injuries and diseases, employers benefit. By agreeing to these limitations and giving up their right to sue their employers, employees benefit from receiving prompt medical care, disability pay for the time off and vocational training without consideration of fault. For example, an employee who loses an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip will receive medical treatment, disability benefits for time off work for treatment calculated at two-thirds of that employee's average weekly pay, 500 weeks of benefits at the current rate of $322 per week for a total of $161,000 plus the possibility for vocational training. Who among us would cut off an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip for $161,000?
Anyone who has been through the system or is related to someone who has been through it knows that employers often find doctors who will say that the injury or the occupational disease did not arise out of the employment. If these doctors are believed, the employer will not be liable for any benefits.
Representative Spiros claims to have looked at abuses in the system, and "introduced legislation to ensure that this system is not abused and the scales of justice remain balanced and impartial." His bill does nothing of the sort. First, it takes away the right of injured workers to choose their own physicians and health care providers. Under this bill, the employer chooses the doctors that the injured employee may see. Essentially, Mr. Spiros wants the employer to control the most important aspect of the worker's compensation system, namely, the health care provided to the injured employees and the doctors who are responsible for treatment and for preparing the key medical records and offering the key medical opinions that determine whether the employee will be entitled to any benefits and, if so, how much.
Second, the bill will introduce the concept of fault into the system while keeping the damage limitations in place. For example, if an employee is found to be one-third at fault, then that employee’s benefits, which are already substantially limited, will be cut in proportion to their fault. The disability benefits due an employee who is one-third at fault and loses an arm at the shoulder or a leg at the hip would be cut from $161,000 to just over $107,000.
Third, the bill also reduces the time limits by which an employee must file an application requesting a hearing on the claim from two years to one year. Why? What’s the rush? Two years gives everyone more time to sort out what’s fair and reach a compromise.
There are even more draconian changes in this proposed bill too numerous to list. I encourage everyone to read the official bill draft to see them yourself.
Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation system is the envy of most states. It boasts low and stable premiums and many choices among insurance providers. Everyone benefits from Wisconsin’s very low litigation rates—employees and employers are given sufficient time to work out their differences and compromise. Additionally, according to one study, Wisconsin has the fastest return to work times in the country.
Wisconsin has a sought after model which involves the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. This Council has brought labor and management together for nearly 50 years to negotiate and agree on meaningful changes that improve the system.
Bottom line: This bill is yet another example of advancing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in Wisconsin. The Advisory Council is set to submit a bill that has been agreed to by the key interested parties. This bill provides reasonable and common sense improvements to the workers’ compensation system. Let the Advisory Council do its job.
Editors note: After our original editorial was published, Representative Spiros introduced an amendment which, if passed, would eliminate the question of fault in a Worker’s Compensation claim under his bill. We will keep you updated on the bill's status.