Im not against change, but the reforms suggested by the state Senate in Senate Bill 1062 are a direct assault upon Oklahomas working men and women. The legislation seeks to lower the costs of workers compensation rates in the state by drastically cutting benefits to workers. There is no reduction in medical costs, even though medical treatment amounts to about half the cost of a workers compensation claim. Why put all the burden of cutting costs on the injured worker?
The proposed cuts in benefit are blatantly unfair. First, SB 1062 allows no award of permanent disability for a worker who returns to his or her job for even one day.
For example, a worker could be off two years after three back surgeries but tries to go back to work in a wheelchair. The employer could decide the next week that the worker is too disabled to work. In that scenario, the worker would receive no award for permanent disability even though his ability to earn a living for his family would be severely impaired for the remainder of his life.
Weekly benefits for workers who have been completely taken off work by a doctor would be cut by as much as 30 percent at a time when they least can afford it. In addition, awards for amputations are severely reduced by the reform bill. A worker who loses his arm or leg would receive $20,000 less than under present law. Total loss of hearing benefits would be cut by $24,000.
If a worker cannot return to any job, his permanent total disability benefits will be cut up to 42 percent. Sadly, benefits to widows of injured workers are deeply reduced. If a worker is killed on the job in which he was earning $600 weekly and leaves a 55-year-old wife, and if the wife remains unmarried and lives to age 80, she will receive one-third less benefits than under present law.
I do not believe that good Oklahoma employers want to cut benefits so drastically for their injured workers who suffer legitimate injuries and widows who must pick up the pieces after their husbands death. Most Oklahoma employers deal in good faith. They are not interested in sacrificing the quality of compensation and medical care for their workers in exchange for more profit.
Cutting the cost of workers compensation solely on the backs of injured workers is unconscionable. If asked, all parties could come to the table and help the Legislature write a fair and balanced bill. Surely there is a better way to accomplish reform than with SB 1062.
Burke is an Oklahoma City attorney and author.
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