Recently Governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State address for 2016. I heard the live telecast and noticed that many of the proposals in the budget are positive and beneficial to working class people, including allocating an additional $2.1 billion in school funding; rebuilding the infrastructure to improve roads and mass transportation; increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour; and bolstering public safety. In reviewing the actual budget proposal itself, however, there appears to be amendments to the Workers’ Compensation system that will not benefit injured workers and their families.
In order to understand the so-called “reforms” on workers, you need the historical perspective. Prior to the enacting of state Workers’ Compensation statutes, simply put, workers were allowed to sue their employers for negligence. In the early 20th century, spurred on by social reformers and the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that killed almost 150 women and girls, laws were enacted to protect workers. Known as the “great compromise,” workers gave up the right to sue their employers in exchange for timely payment of medical and indemnity benefits. For much of that century, Workers’ Compensation laws were expansive and assisted injured workers in getting treatment so they could eventually return to work or receive ongoing benefits in the event they could not.
Today most states have seen changes where the concept of medical treatment and wage replacement for injured workers is being substantially eroded. This agenda to reduce benefits to the injured worker has been part of a nationwide effort starting more than 20 years ago by the Business Council (aka the Insurance Industry). Their agenda was put into effect almost nine years ago here in New York when workers gave up many benefits under the guise of “reform.” These included a reduction in the amount of wage replacement injured workers receive and a limitation on medical treatment in exchange for increasing the weekly benefits more in line with the state average.
Now the Business Council is back to further chip away at injured worker benefits. It has put together a wish list in hopes of further reducing medical benefits and monetary benefits to injured workers who should be able to rely on their treating doctors to determine the best course of treatment. However, one of their proposals is that treatment would be determined by a “panel” for the first 90 days of treatment. This panel, of course, would not include a doctor of the injured workers’ choice, but would be determined by the insurance company for the employer.
Additionally, the Council is proposing a cap on benefits based upon a fixed timeframe as opposed to when injured workers finish their treatment and/or surgical procedures. These measures are being proposed strictly based upon the cost savings realized by the insurance industry and have nothing to do with compensating injured workers or ensuring them of the best treatment available for their particular injury. What this will do, in essence, is shift the cost of medical treatment and wage replacement to other sources such as federal programs and state programs that are paid for by the tax payer instead of the employer’s insurance company. This will ensure continued growth in profits for the insurance industry at the expense of injured workers and their families.
Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal contains some of the Business Council’s “wish list,” but thankfully not everything – at least not yet. Please contact the Governor, your State Senator or Assembly Person and tell them that our rights and benefits should never be negotiated away. Workers are the backbone of this country. They have built this nation and rebuilt New York. We must ensure they are taken care of when they get hurt.
Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.
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