Hurtful chaos

The failure of state agencies to cooperate in dealing with business cheaters is appalling.

August 23, 2012 

Here’s how the old expression “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” would apply to those state agencies with duties that touch on worker safety, workers’ compensation, business scofflaws and the violation of regulations pertaining to all three:

Right hand: “Left hand, I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t want to know, and I’ll ignore you if you extend yourself to me, and furthermore, if a few workers crash to the floor because neither of us tried to break the fall, who cares?”

In the third part of a series on the cheating that goes on with businesses that avoid paying for workers’ compensation insurance, thus placing workers in jeopardy, deceiving regulators and gaining an unfair advantage over honest competitors, The News & Observer found the problems are every bit as bad as many honest employers said they were.

The N&O also found a bureaucracy neglecting the very mission of public service. The excuses for ineptitude are not good enough.

For her part, Gov. Beverly Perdue acted quickly in reaction to The N&O series, issuing an executive order to get agencies working together on the lack of communication. And the candidates for governor, Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton, also vowed change.

Perhaps because her agency, the Industrial Commission, is charged with ensuring that employers have the proper workers’ compensation insurance, the position of commission Chair Pam Young seems the most troubling. And it doesn’t help that a previous N&O series found some 30,000 businesses were without workers’ comp as required by law.

Young says the commission’s computer system is outdated in terms of being able to share information with other agencies, and besides, that’s not the commission’s job. So the explanation, given not just by Young, for the lack of cooperation among agencies that could help uncover workers’ comp rule breakers, and thus level the field for the many businesses that play by the rules and protect workers, is that it’s not in the job description.

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s agency, for example, investigates complaints that an employer isn’t paying overtime. But Berry says it’s not her agency’s task to check for workers’ compensation insurance in the process of doing its duty on pay, safety or other issues.

The state Department of Revenue regularly sends the Employment Security Division lists of new businesses, but the lists don’t go to the Industrial Commission so it can check to see if the businesses have workers’ compensation coverage. The N&O report characterized the lack of communication as a result of agencies operating in their own “silos.”

Towers might be more like it. Towers of Babel.

The N&O’s earlier series on workers’ compensation showed, clearly, that the system is broken and that businesses playing by the rules are put at a tremendous disadvantage. .

Those business owners understandably are upset that owners who don’t have proper workers’ comp – who buy “ghost” policies for a possible new employee and call their other employees contractors to escape their obligations – often get by with cheating.

They get by because the agency that’s supposed to watch them, the Industrial Commission, hasn’t done its job very well despite commissioners with six-figure salaries and staff. An old computer system is one not-acceptable excuse, and then there are the other agencies in state government that could help with the workers’ compensation dilemma but just ... well, they just don’t.

Oh. That explains everything. Sadly. it really does.

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