Workers in the dark

A law denying N.C. workers information on workers’ comp coverage is just wrong.

October 29, 2012 

It was a shock to many when The News & Observer in April exposed the scandalous fact that as many as 30,000 North Carolina employers failed to carry required workers’ compensation insurance. That failure left many workers facing medical costs related to on-the-job accidents.

Gov. Beverly Perdue came down on the state Industrial Commission, which is supposed to investigate and follow up on workers’ comp issues, and a task force was convened to seek ways to address these gaps in insurance, and the fact that agencies within state government that should have been cooperating to protect workers weren’t doing much.

Amazingly, the General Assembly then actually made it harder for workers and others to get information as to whether businesses carried workers’ comp insurance. It passed a measure that agreed to make confidential information from insurers about whether businesses had such insurance.

Under this law, The N&O would not have had access to information that made it possible to uncover the lack of insurance among some employers. (Many of the uncovered were small businesses, with some owners claiming they didn’t know the insurance was required.)

The N.C. Rate Bureau, a nonprofit agency created by the General Assembly that in effect works for the insurance industry, didn’t like the way the Industrial Commission shared the information it got from the bureau, and the secrecy legislation was the result. The bureau did not want private firms to get information it collected from insurers, whereupon those firms would sell the information to insurance companies looking for clients.

But the bureau’s other concerns – that Social Security numbers of employers, the size of payrolls or federal tax identifications would be released – were easily answered.

The commission excluded that information from what it gave this newspaper, and it’s fair enough to protect Social Security numbers, etc. In other words, there was no problem.

To now shield from the public data about business names, addresses, insurance carriers, policy numbers and the dates covered by the policies is going too far. Now employees will find it impossible to know whether employers have workers’ comp coverage.

That could be very important to someone who was injured on the job. Without coverage, medical care providers would come after the workers. The only alternative would be for the workers to go after employers through the legal system. That could be a long, arduous process, during which a worker and his or her family would feel incredible strain that would have been avoided if an employer had been following the law. And it would be expensive for everyone.

Of course, this excessive law would be entirely unnecessary if employers would simply read the law and obey it. Ignorance is no excuse, not among business people who have to meet all sorts of legal requirements to hang their shingles, and have to keep track of payroll records and charges and receipts and many details. They cannot add to that list, “Check on workers’ comp coverage”?

Yes, it’s true the coverage can be an expense of doing business, but there are many such expenses. And few of them carry the potential consequences of not having workers’ comp insurance, from lawsuits for example.

This poorly conceived law needs to be taken off the books at the legislature’s earliest opportunity. The working people of this state, who have relatively few protections under the law, deserve this one.

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