Governor Cuomo signed a new budget this week. While many extolled his progressive agenda that included free college tuition for the middle class, renewing the millionaire’s tax, and giving a tax break on dues for union members, he also quietly and without much fanfare in the news media, struck a huge blow to injured workers.
Unfortunately for those members of our society who no longer are able to work as a result of an injury, or sustained a life altering injury while on the job, their benefits became part of a horse-trade in Albany much to their detriment. Governor Cuomo, anxious to get his big publicity items in the budget in case he seeks higher office, seems to have used Workers’ Compensation as a bargaining chip.
The Business Council circulated fake facts blaming injured workers’ benefits for the high cost of doing business in the state, when in reality employer costs nationwide for Workers’ Compensation are at their lowest levels in 35 years. Locally, Workers’ Compensation costs in New York have declined dramatically as well; compensation is only a small portion of employer costs and is extremely profitable for insurers. The Business Council seems to have a number of members with strong ties to the insurance industry, which makes their position even further suspect.
In 2007, the Council was successful in lobbying to obtain caps on indemnity benefits and has now continued its assault so that the prior limit on weekly benefits will be further reduced. When caps were first put into place, they did not go into effect until judges determined that injured workers had reached maximum medical improvement and that their conditions could be classified as permanent. This new provision automatically starts the cap after 2½ years, regardless of a person’s abilities or condition, or whether or not he will ever be able to work again or find work that meets medical restrictions. It is up to the injured worker to show that he has not reached maximum medical treatment that the carrier can refute.
The Business Council has continued its attack by alleging that permanent loss-of-use awards were unfair to the employer. They argue that the prior guidelines were outdated and did not take into consideration new advances in medicine. Again, fake facts! The guidelines are based on range of motion and loss of function after all modalities are exhausted, including new advances in medicine available. As a result, the new law directs the Board to “consult” with a group stacked with pro business and insurance interests, but no representatives of injured workers to “review” the current guidelines with the ultimate goal of reducing benefits. The fact that workers who have permanent life-altering injuries to their arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes have absolutely no say is extremely distressing.
When does this eroding away of Workers’ Compensation benefits end? Two years ago, ProPublica published a series of articles entitled “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp”. They documented the cutbacks made in many states with disastrous consequences. Their report noted that since 2003, 33 states passed Workers’ Compensation laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult to obtain benefits. New York is part of that list, having enacted laws not once, but twice, since then.
Many believe that reducing benefits to injured workers will force them back to work. Studies have shown that this is another myth perpetuated by the falsehood that injured workers are frauds. What happens in reality is that many injured workers are unable to work and are forced into poverty or have to collect alternate benefits. Social Security Disability benefits, which are paid by the American taxpayers, are generally offset by Workers’ Compensation benefits. Without Workers’ Compensation payable by the insurance carrier, the burden on the taxpayer is larger. Rather than the Workers’ Compensation insurance carrier paying for medical treatment, it is put through Medicare. This is known as cost shifting and it affects all of us, as we are the ones who end up paying – and paying dearly.
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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