Some 1,834 Wyoming employers are delinquent in paying their premiums to Wyoming Workers’ Compensation, to the tune of $3,228,673, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
That’s an average of $1,760 for each of 1,834 employers who still enjoy the privileges of the workers’ compensation program — chief among the privileges is immunity from being sued by their employees or their families for the company’s own proven negligence.
Wyoming mostly ignores the delinquency problem. Instead, elected officials make political points by refusing proposals intended to hold bad players accountable, insisting they don’t want to burden employers for the sake of employee safety. Might be too expensive.
Unpaid workers’ compensation premiums is not a new phenomenon in Wyoming, but it is a situation that is allowed to fester with little or no debate. In 2008, the agency reported that 1,621 Wyoming employers were delinquent for more than $1.4 million in workers’ compensation premiums (the average delinquency was $863, back then). From 2008 to 2015 it increased more than 100 percent, but you won’t hear lawmakers talking about it during the legislative session.
Last week, WyoFile reported that some Wyoming employers also fail to pay fines levied by the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration without retribution or any level of accountability. Outstanding fines to Wyoming OSHA, dating back to 2011, total $117,000 among 27 employers (WyoFile listed the company names).
These figures are worth discussing because Wyoming leaders have had many opportunities during the past 10 years to enact measures to help improve workplace conditions that consistently place the state among the worst in the nation for workplace fatalities. At every turn, Wyoming has opted for the carrot approach of voluntary measures (commendable) and has resisted every punitive, or stick, approach (not commendable).
Of course, it might have been handy to have all of these figures before the Wyoming Legislature began its annual session. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered much.
On Monday Wyoming lawmakers allowed a bill to die without even discussing it, or discussing the heart of the problem it attempted to address.
Senate File 72-OSHA Penalties-2 would have allowed the Wyoming Occupational Health and Safety Administration to levy a fine up to $50,000 for companies smaller than 250 employees, and up to $250,000 for companies with 250 employees or more, for OSHA violations that play a part in the death of an employee.
The measure was championed by Rep. Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) and sponsored by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, after vigorous discussion this past fall.
Proponents of the bill included Jane Collins of Sheridan, whose grandson Brett Samuel Collins, 20, was killed while working his last few days at a construction job on Aug. 20, 2012. Wyoming OSHA had proposed $13,860 in fines for the company’s alleged OSHA violations related to the accident. A year later, the company and Wyoming OSHA settled on a fine of $6,773.
“I find it offensive that lawyers and company representatives can negotiate and reduce fines to that small of an amount,” Collins told WyoFile this past fall.
Rep. Throne and other members of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee agreed, and the committee sponsored the bill. But the bill suffered a procedural death under the thumb of Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), who said — after 10 years of debate in Wyoming about how to address Wyoming’s among-the-worst-in-the-nation stature in workplace fatalities — the bill moved too quickly, and needed more study.
An examination of OSHA penalty data suggested that SF 72, if enacted long ago, likely would not have come into play given the fact that very few OSHA penalties during the past 10 years might have qualified. The point, said proponents, was to establish a deterrent.
“My point is it’s symbolic,” said Mark Aronowitz, staff attorney for the Spence Association for Employee Rights (SAFER). “We’re talking about the worst of the worst of the worst. For a bill like this not to move forward is insult on top of insult on top of injury. … You lose someone, then you wait 11 months for OSHA to investigate, and you end up with fine of $9,000 … It’s harsh.”
But can Wyoming residents be surprised by Wyoming Legislature leadership’s refusal to create a stick among the carrots? After all, this is a body whose chief Medicaid expansion opponent reasoned that Wyoming must proceed cautiously, in part, for fear that Medicaid gap recipients might overuse access to health care.
And maybe Wyoming lawmakers are correct to keep guard over Wyoming employers — apparently 1,834 cannot afford to pay their workers’ compensation premiums, and 27 of them cannot even afford to pay fines assessed by OSHA. If that’s the case, why would any skilled worker want to come work in Wyoming?