Lawmakers split over workers’ comp legislation

JACKSON — The Mississippi Legislature is split on a bill that would make changes to the state’s workers’ compensation law. Opponents say it would tilt the scales against workers, but proponents say it would return fairness to a system that currently favors workers.

The House defeated its bill yesterday 62-52, but the Senate voted 38-13 in favor, meaning the issue will stay alive further into the 2012 session.

The bill’s many changes include a provision to allow employers to test employees for alcohol and drugs if they are injured on the job. It would also require employees to provide the employer with medical proof that their injury or illness is a direct result of their job if their claim is contested, and would increase the immediate payment to a spouse and funeral expense assistance in the event an employee is killed because of their job.

Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, told the House that the bill made minor changes to the law. He said rulings by the courts have strayed into liberally construing the law to the side of the injured workers. He said the bill would restore fairness to the system as it was envisioned decades ago.

“We want a fair playing field for the employee, for the employer and for those who provide the insurance,” Formby said.

But Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, argued that the changes benefited employers and insurers, not workers.

“Worker’s comp is a compromise … making sure you get something (of the worker). Now they want to do away with the compromise,” Blackmon, an attorney, told the House.

The Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights held a news conference at the Capitol as the House debated. The group urged legislators to defeat the bill, saying it challenged years of state Supreme Court decisions.

“I don’t think this bill can survive constitutional scrutiny,” said Attorney Roger Doolittle, who says he has represented employees in thousands of worker’s compensation cases.

Doolittle said the changes aim to make workers give up on their claims by making it more time consuming and confusing to go through with the process.

“I love my clients, but if they had M.B.A.s or Ph.D.s, they wouldn’t be working in a poultry factory,” Doolittle said.

Dan Gibson, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Self Insurers, said the bill would reduce litigation.

“We may be increasing the burden of proof, but when they go to court they need an attorney anyway and they have that burden of proof,” said Gibson, who represents employers who pay their own workers’ compensation. “There may be a few more i’s that have to be dotted and t’s that have to be crossed, but at the end of the day we want to make sure that the injured worker is taken care of.”

Doolittle argues that the bill will increase litigation costs because more workers will end up seeking compensation in the courtroom.

“We’re calling this the lawyers’ relief act,” Doolittle said, adding that the bill would ultimately benefit the insurance industry and large companies that are self-insured.

Gov. Phil Bryant told The Associated Press that he supports several provisions of the bill, including the right of the employer to give the employee a drug test, but said some sections could have negative consequences.

“I knew it would be a difficult issue, to balance between the employer’s rights and those of the employee,” Bryant said. “Fraud does exist, but I think we’ve got to be very careful to protect the rights of the average Mississippi worker.” Bryant said he would consider signing the bill if it comes to his desk.

The bills are House Bill 555 and Senate Bill 2576.

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