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Are the courts coddling injured workers?

The Chamber of Commerce thinks so, and wants it stopped.

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RICE: Not forthcoming.
  • RICE: Not forthcoming.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce is ordering the courts and the Workers Compensation Commission to get out of town.

A bill backed by the Chamber (HB 1840) would in essence undo decisions favorable to injured workers that have been made by the courts, the Commission and the Commission's administrative law judges since 1993, when the Chamber last "reformed" the state workers compensation law. HB 1840 says that since passage of Act 796 of 1993, the law judges, the commission and the Arkansas courts "have continually broadened the scope and eroded the purpose of the workers' compensation statutes of this state. ... In the future, if such things as the statute of limitations, the standard of review by the Workers' Compensation Commission or courts, the extent to which any physical conditions, injury, or disease should be excluded from or added to coverage by the law, or the scope of the workers' compensation statutes need to be liberalized, expanded, broadened, or narrowed, those things shall be addressed by the General Assembly and should not be done by administrative law judges, the Workers' Compensation Commission, or the courts."

Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, is the lead sponsor of HB 1840. He didn't return telephone calls from a reporter. Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, second on the list of sponsors, said he was co-sponsoring the bill at the request of the Chamber of Commerce. Perry is the only Democrat among the bill's five sponsors.

Under the workers compensation law, employers buy insurance that makes standardized payments to workers injured on the job. In return, the individual workers give up the right to sue. Because the workers comp law is an initiated act, approved by the voters, any change by the legislature requires a two-thirds majority in each house. The two-thirds is easily attainable when, as frequently happens, labor and management agree on changes. But sometimes they don't agree. In 1993, the Chamber said that employers were concerned about the rising cost of workers comp insurance, and the chamber won passage of a bill that was fiercely resisted by labor. Management has much more influence with the legislature than does labor.

Today, the employers again express alarm over the cost of insurance, and the two sides couldn't agree on changes to the workers comp law. "They're looking at dollars, and we're looking at injured workers," says Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas State AFL-CIO. "They want to undo all the pro-worker court decisions since 1993."

The employers are particularly upset that injuries suffered by employees while taking a break have sometimes been declared compensable injuries.

HB 1840 is in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

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