Show some trust of Wyoming’s workers
— June 12, 2013
A preview of some of the typical anti-worker rhetoric we will hear during next year’s legislative session was loudly on display when an interim committee meeting in Casper last week renewed claims that fired and/or injured employees are cheating the system.
Without presenting any evidence to back up his charge, Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), co-chairman of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee, said some employees are using the workers compensation program because they don’t have affordable health insurance.
Too many workers compensation claims are phony, Scott added, because some workers are “basically hypochondriacs.” Sorry, but all of his years serving on the health committee don’t make him a doctor capable of diagnosing anyone. Apparently to drive his point home about how stupid the state is for allowing bogus claims, the lawmaker later added, “My contention is that we have not fully evolved to walking upright.”
On Monday, I asked Scott to clarify why he is convinced employees are using workers comp because they can’t afford health insurance.
“It sure looks like that’s what’s going on,” he said. “We don’t have any specific known incidents, but from the data we’ve seen it looks like that’s what’s happening. And I’m pretty sure it does.”
But what specific data? Scott cited a report given to the committee that he said found “an overlap between workers comp and other governmental programs that people were using.”
“It’s nothing I can prove, but it’s one of those things I’m sure is going on,” he said. “The question is, how do you stop it?”
Actually, the question should be why the state senator apparently made this claim without more than simply a gut feeling that the system is being abused by workers.
Lack of affordable health care is indeed a problem for many Wyoming workers, but for Scott to suggest that it has driven employees to cheat the system is outrageous on two levels.
First, if he wants to find people to blame for lack of affordable health care, he should look in the mirror. Staring back at him will be a legislator who helped lead the state’s fight against setting up its own health insurance exchange, so instead of finding the elusive “Wyoming solution” that he and so many of Obamacare’s critics are allegedly searching high and low for, our exchange will be administered by the federal government. You know, the one they don’t trust.
Second, and more importantly, if workers were to successfully use workers compensation as a substitute for buying health insurance, it would obviously require collusion on the part of their physicians. Is Scott seriously charging that a large number of doctors in Wyoming are willing to risk their livelihood to commit fraud?
But his anti-worker claims don’t stop there. Scott also agreed with employers who complained to the panel that employees who have been denied workers compensation claims are needlessly flooding the Wyoming Supreme Court with challenges. The legislator said the cases should be resolved by the lower courts. Is he really suggesting that workers who believe they were unjustly denied help from the state – through a fund that employers pay into so they can’t be sued – shouldn’t have the right to appeal their cases to a higher court?
No one will argue that cases of workers compensation fraud are not committed. But some injured workers say they were ordered by their employers not to file a claim, so their premiums don’t increase. Since the state recently enhanced its efforts to detect and investigate fraud in the program, why not see if those changes are successful in uncovering more attempts to game the system by either side before labeling injured workers hypochondriacs and liars?
Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a coalition that includes unions and government watchdog groups, said his organization hears the flip side of the argument that the legislators often haven’t heard. “Our own experience has been we heard many reports of employers abusing the system as well,” he said.
If the interim committee wants to explore a real problem in the workers compensation program, why doesn’t it seek a way to ensure that all employers are paying their premiums? In February 2012, state officials told WyoFile that 6.6 percent of Wyoming employers who pay into the fund were delinquent by a total of almost $1 million.
Why not also investigate employers’ under-reporting of workplace accidents and injuries under the OSHA 300 self-reporting rule? Wyoming’s occupational epidemiologist Mack Sewell recently told WyoFile that employers in Wyoming — and all around the nation — notoriously under-report workplace injuries. Sewell said he and his colleagues estimated that approximately one-third of all injuries are actually reported. Sewell said that employer reporting is so poor that he and others cannot rely on it in their epidemiology work.
The committee also heard from representatives of city governments in Casper and Gillette who claim that some workers fired for misconduct were still able to collect unemployment benefits. Just as in the workers compensation testimony, there was no statistical evidence presented, merely more anecdotes about people allegedly getting paid money they don’t deserve.
Such examples no doubt exist, but again, where is the evidence that this is such a widespread problem that we have to pass a new law to stop it? The Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that would have changed the state’s legal definition of employee misconduct to favor employers, but Gov. Mead refused to sign the bill because he feared it could have meant that no one who is dismissed can qualify for unemployment benefits. The interim committee is likely to reintroduce some form of the same legislation in 2014, and will probably keep bringing it up until it finally passes, because employers clearly have the ear of the Legislature, while labor does not.
The two municipalities said the unemployment appeals process needs to be revamped because they were kept from submitting all of their evidence about the firings. But Joan Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, warned that federal guidelines are responsible for blocking some evidence. It’s unclear what the state can do to make the appeals process more judicious in terms of what evidence can be considered admissible.
Evans also outlined the fair and reasonable approach the state takes when it considers an unemployment claim. “These individuals (state staff) are making a determination as a neutral party, assuming someone is telling the truth unless proven otherwise,” the director said.
Cheating the system should never be condoned, whether it’s the fired worker or his former employer who is guilty. But despite the complaints of employers that the claim and hearing processes are unfair, the numbers don’t reflect that judgment. Evans said out of about 30,000 unemployment benefit claims filed in the state last year, 1,900 were reviewed for hearing and only a “couple hundred” actually went to the state’s unemployment benefits commission.
When it helps businesses, Wyoming has a long history of trusting what companies tell the state government. Take the minerals industry as an example: If a company self-reports an environmental problem, the state often waives any fine as long as the damage is cleaned up. For tax purposes, we trust many mineral resource extractors to tell us how much they have produced, partly because we don’t have the necessary resources to fully monitor them.
But when it comes to the working men and women of Wyoming, some lawmakers act like the state just can’t believe a word they say. Fired from your job? Prove it wasn’t because of your own misconduct. Injured on the job? You’re faking it. And while you appeal either one of those determinations, turn to social service agencies for help to survive – and hope legislators haven’t used budget problems as an excuse to cut the bottom out of the state’s safety net.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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