Senate Bill 1062 could mean big changes for worker's compensation in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma currently has the sixth highest number of worker's compensation claims in the country but this 270-page bill, authored by Sen. Brian Bingman, calls for extensive reform.
Local firefighters object to the bill in part because it terminates worker’s compensation benefits for volunteer firefighters and reduces benefits for all injured workers.
The bill, if passed, would cut temporary total disability maximum payments by 30 percent. Permanent total disability payments would be cut up to 42 percent. Amputation awards would be reduced drastically as would widows benefits.
Pryor Fire Chief Tim Thompson brought the issue to the attention of the Firefighters Association at their last meeting, urging them to call their representative.
“The volunteer firefighter is just what it says; a volunteer. Most do it for nothing and now we’re going to tell them, ‘I sure hope you don’t get hurt because you are on your own, there’s no way to take care of your family, you’re on your own,” said Thompson. “Across the whole country volunteerism is at an all time low. Finding committed people is hard to do.”
Thompson said Pryor has 11 volunteer firefighters currently, but the department is always looking for qualified applicants. This reform, he said, doesn’t help the working man.
“The state of Oklahoma basically gets free fire protection,” said Chouteau Fire Chief Ted Key. “We don't bill them for fighting fires on state property. Worker's comp is another way to help pay back a community for their service.”
Key said some small fire departments do not have the money to provide worker's compensation as they often have to do fundraising just to pay the regular bills.
“Firefighting is extremely dangerous. Worker's comp is the least we can do for these volunteers. They are willing to risk their life, but we can't provide the with basic protection,” said Key, whose department has about 18 volunteers.
Key said this is an additional hardship being put on rural fire departments.
Some employers, however, support the bill saying it will streamline the process and make the entire worker’s compensation system more efficient.
Joe Vanderhoof, vice president of Sygma supports the reform.
“This reform will help us continue to attract business to the state, rather than outsourcing to another state,” said Vanderhoof.
He said the worker's compensation claims are filed and ruled on in the court system and have little to do with the employers.
“Frankly, we've got to get it out of the court system and make it an administrative system,” said Vanderhoof. “This bill will help us get that control if it is passed.”
He said Sygma has eight distribution centers in Texas, whose worker's compensation laws are very similar to how Oklahoma's will look if SB 1062 is passed.
“We are very familiar with it. We see how it works. The employers take care of the employees, which is how it should be,” said Vanderhoof. “It keeps it out of court.”
Vanderhoof said he has contacted his legislator to voice his support for the bill.
Darryl Sword, regional director of Express Personnel, has a similar opinion.
“This reform, if it goes through, will do two big things for Oklahoma. It will allow for job growth in the state. It will allow injured workers to get the care the need more quickly and efficiently,” said Sword. “The reform will help everyone, especially small businesses. It's hard for a small business owner to start up and stay afloat because of all the worker's comp expenses.”
He said switching to an administrative system will be positive all around.
“We are one of only two states that use the current system. Oklahoma is ranked the sixth-most expensive state for employers due to worker's comp,” said Sword.
Vanderhoof and Sword said neither has received any feedback from employers on the issue. Both say they will educate their employers on the change if the bill is passed.
The bill, called the Administrative Worker's Compensation Act, was presented to the Senate Feb. 4. With 14 co-authors, and a few revisions already, the bill has gone through several readings at the committee level. On Feb. 27 the measure passed with 34 votes yes and 12 no.
A motion to reconsider vote was made and tabled March 4. Now, the bill is going through revisions before it can be presented to the House of Representatives.