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Michigan Republican legislators seek reduced workers’ compensation

Michigan workers who are hurt on the job could face reduced workers’ compensation benefits if legislation passed by the state House becomes law.

House bill [5002](”http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(qun4tw45mlwtie55ifkz3r45))/mileg.aspx?page=getObject&objectName=2011-HB-5002), introduced by Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford), would overhaul the Worker’s Disability Compensation Act and change how benefits are calculated.

Since 1912 Michigan’s workers’ compensation law has guaranteed that people who get hurt at work will get medical treatment and income. Under the current law injured workers who take lower paying jobs are entitled to a benefit of 80 percent of the after-tax difference in income.

HB 5002 would change this formula and allow benefits to be reduced by wages “whether or not earned” — if a worker is thought to be capable of doing a job, the amount he would earn at that job is deducted from his benefits whether or not the job is actually available.

“It is a bad law,” said John Sims, a Marshall-based attorney who has represented plaintiffs and defendants in workers’ compensation cases over the last 34 years.

The 56-page bill was written by a representative of the Michigan Self-Insurers Association, he said, and created without input from the Workers’ Compensation Law Section of the state bar Association.

“It creates a virtual wage earning capacity,” he said. “The new law says that if we can think of a job that you can do, we can reduce your benefits by this hypothetical rate.”

There are other problems with the bill, Sims said. It allows employers to fire disabled workers for “fault” which is “whatever the employer wants to say it is.” It also bars injured workers from recovering legal fees when they sue to get employers or insurance companies to pay medical bills.

The law also requires that people who get disability benefits look for other employment.

“Ask state correction officers what would happen if they hunt for work someplace else,” said Sims. “At MDOC if you take another job you are fired — you’d loose a job that is paying 20 bucks an hour and benefits. Is that right?”

A booklet about workers’ compensation prepared for legislators by the Michigan Self-Insurers Association and the Michigan Manufacturers Association argues that HB 5002 is necessary because disability benefits keep people from working.

Like general assistance welfare benefits, workers’ compensation was never intended to support an individual over a lifetime. Rather, workers’ compensation was intended as a mechanism to provide a weekly wage replacement and medical care. The goal was to return injured workers to work.

Michigan can reduce workers’ compensation costs and can compete more effectively for jobs and business investments by removing incentives that encourage employees not to return to work.

Charles Owens of the National Federation of Independent Business / Michigan testified in support of the bill before the House Commerce Committee.

Owens said that his group feels it needs protection against employees that malinger after surgery and complain about pain just because they don’t want to go back to work.

“When an employee successfully receives workman’s comp payments that they are not entitled to because of false claims about pain, or they didn’t really injure themselves at work,” he said, “the word gets out and [attorneys] begin advertising for people to call them. Even though it may start with just a few employees it becomes a cottage industry.

Attorney Richard Warsh practices workers compensation law in Southfield.

He said he’s concerned about the part of HB 5002 that requires employees to use a company-selected doctor for the first 45 days (rather than the first 10 days) of their medical treatment.

“For most people this would mean that you are giving up your right to pick your surgeon,” he said. “You are being asked to go to industrial clinics … the level of care you are getting is lower and there is a pressure on these clinics to minimize the injury.

This is government dictating the health care that individuals receive, he said. “I can’t understand why Republicans and Tea Party people aren’t jumping up and down over this.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing which held a hearing on it this week.

“I decided to just get it on the table because I do know it could be a very contentious issue,” committee chairman and bill sponsor Sen. Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Township) said.

Jansen said that he is under no pressure to rush the bill through committee and will schedule another round of hearings for next week.

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