Media wants veto on workers’ comp bill

abaird@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2012 

Editor's Note: A story Thursday about a workers’ compensation bill approved by the legislature mischaracterized when certain language was added to the bill. The provision that would restrict public access to information about whether a business has workers’ compensation insurance was added June 7 when the bill was in a Senate committee. A House committee concurred on the amendment June 20, and the House voted on it June 21.

Gov. Bev Perdue is being asked by media organizations to veto a bill that would restrict public access to information about businesses that put their employees at financial risk by not purchasing legally required workers’ compensation insurance.

An investigation by The News & Observer in April revealed that tens of thousands of North Carolina employers do not have the insurance. The Industrial Commission, which administers the Workers’ Compensation Act on behalf of the state, often first learns a company is out of compliance when someone is hurt and appealing for help.

The N&O investigation found that many injured workers never receive compensation for their injuries. Nor does the state-run Industrial Commission typically enforce fines or file charges.

The commission relies on information provided by the Rate Bureau, a group of private insurance companies that among other things sets the rates for workers’ compensation insurance and maintains policy data for all insured employers in the state.

Lawmakers last week passed a bill, HB237, aimed at reform. The bill creates a task force to study the problem and recommend reforms. But one provision has proven controversial among those in favor of transparency and open government. An amendment added at the last minute states that the information provided to the Industrial Commission by the Rate Bureau – which enabled N&O’s investigation – will no longer be public record.

For the average worker that means their ability to find out if their employer has workers’ compensation insurance could be at risk. Currently workers can find out that information on the Industrial Commission’s website.

Sue Taylor, director of insurance operations for the Rate Bureau, said the change is an effort to protect confidential and proprietary information. Among the information shared with the commission is Social Security numbers, names, addresses and payroll details, she said in an interview.

“It’s all confidential, and the information we collect is not covered under public records law,” Taylor said. “We share it with the commission, but that doesn’t mean it should become public record.”

John Bussian, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the North Carolina Press Association, said that privacy concerns are overblown. All kinds of public records have sensitive information removed, he said.

“Why shouldn’t they do what everybody else does?” Bussian said. “The (Rate Bureau) claims that other people will pilfer the information and monetize it, but there’s already a mechanism in N.C. law to decide whether something is a trade secret and to prevent abuse.”

Taylor said she believed the commission could redact information if it were inclined. The commission declined to comment on the bill except to say the information is “critical to administering the workers’ compensation system.”

A group of media leaders and open records advocates, including representatives of the N.C. Press Association, the N.C. Association of Broadcasters, and N&O publisher Orage Quarles III, on Wednesday met with Kevin McLaughlin, deputy chief of staff to Perdue, to detail concerns and request a veto. The governor’s spokesman, Mark Johnson, later said the bill is still under review.

Baird: 919-829-4696

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