Point of View

Another loss for working people

April 21, 2011 

— If you have to break a sweat to make a living or care about anyone who does, there is a very bad thing that is about to happen that you need to know about.

North Carolina legislators may title their bills to change the law whatever they like, and such titles may lead or mislead. Terms like "reform," "modernize" and "omnibus" are title terms that often hide mischief.

House bill 709, "Protect and Put NC Back to Work," is a shining example of the latest in that dark art where the bill title says one thing and the text of the bill does the opposite. A more accurate title would be "House Bill 709, An Act Pushed by Insurance Companies to Reduce Payments to Workers Permanently Disabled on the Job and to Tilt a Delicately Balanced Legal System Against the Interests of Every Injured Worker."

But then, who could vote for such a heartless notion?

The Workers' Compensation system has made the modern workplace possible through a carefully drafted compromise by which workers give up their right to sue their employer in regular court for actual damages caused by negligence in all but the rarest cases.

What employees got out of the deal was their certainty of having their medical bills paid, plus two thirds of their average weekly wage during their period of recovery for on-the-job injuries.

For certain types of permanent injury, there are specific terms of compensation that extend beyond the period of medical recovery that compensate for permanent loss of capacity. The list is a grisly reminder of the of risks that so many are exposed to - 200 weeks for a hand, 240 weeks for an arm, 100 weeks for an eye.

The law also contemplates that some are so severely injured that they cannot return to gainful employment due to the limitations caused by their injury. Under current law, these men and women who can no longer perform many of the basic tasks of life can continue to receive benefits unless they recover sufficiently to return to work. It is not the usual case that disability is permanent, but it does happen.

Despite the fact that North Carolina enjoys average rates for workers' comp insurance, and the business climate is ranked at or near No. 1 in the nation, business owners have somehow been persuaded there is urgent need for reform. They have been fed with stories of malingerers and rich lawyers, but somehow the crippled old folks bent by injury that this bill really hammers are not a part of the picture.

This bill would limit their support to a bit over 9.5 years - unless they lose both eyes or two limbs, are severely brain injured or severely paralyzed - as if the General Assembly could also end their suffering and enable them to support their family in one fell swoop.

It is dangerously easy to accept procedural access and evidentiary changes that will tilt the system against the injured as reform, or to dismiss them as just words in a book or just legal mumbo-jumbo. You will only feel the difference when you are injured and, while struggling to heal, seek answers to desperate questions. But it will be too late then.

There are high-powered, high-priced lawyers in nice suits everywhere in this - but if you let either side's lawyers write the rules as this bill does, they tend to win a disproportionate amount of the time. That results in the man in the faded work shirt whose body and dreams are crushed in an accident being crushed yet again.

Harry Payne, now senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center, has served as a state legislator and as N.C. labor commissioner. He was chairman of the Employment Security Commission from 2001 to 2009.

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